A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 10

Objective Activity as the Ground of Ethics

A. The Meaning of Good

HAVING argued that conation necessarily involves awareness of, or imagination of, some tendency objective to the conative act itself, I will now consider the bearing of this psychological conclusion on ethics. But first I must gather up the threads of our various ethical inquiries, even at the cost of some repetition, so as to weave them, if possible, into a coherent pattern. Thus I hope to formulate an ethical theory which, while strictly ethical, will also be adequately related to biology and physics. Having attempted this purely abstract discussion, I shall venture at a later stage on a more concrete description of the nature of the ideal.

We must recall the fundamental ambiguity of the word ‘good’. It refers sometimes to acts of valuation, sometimes to objects valued. Only the latter sense concerns ethics. Everything that is called ‘good’ in this sense is either (a) itself a case of free teleological activity, of fulfilment of tendency, or else (b) it is instrumental to, or at least significant of, such activity or fulfilment. Conversely, everything bad is either itself a case of the hindrance of activity or tendency, or else is instrumental to, or is at least significant of, the hindrance of activity or tendency.

Here at the outset, however, we must remember our distinction between ‘tendency’ and ‘capacity’. We shall find reason to say that by ‘good’ we mean (or ought to mean, in ethics) not merely the fulfilment of the intrinsic tendencies of things as they are, but also the fulfilment of their capacity of co-operating with other things to create I new tendencies and fulfilments.

At the outset also we must refer to our earlier conclusion that what we mean by ‘good’ is essentially the fulfilment of teleological activity. But since the distinction between teleological and non-teleological activity is perhaps not ultimate, we must not limit good offhand to those activities which are admittedly teleological. Even physical activity, it will be remembered, may perhaps be described as low-grade teleological activity on the part of ultimate physical units acting in relation to immediate ends. Consequently we are not entitled to deny that physical fulfilment is good merely because it is not apparently teleological. Our reluctance to admit that physical fulfilment is in any sense good may be mitigated by the thought that physical tendencies inhere in the very same stuff as that which, in higher organization, emerges into biological and even mental activity. In physical fulfilment its simplest capacity is expressed; but what is fulfilled on the physical plane is that which can in more favourable postures conduct itself in the manners which we judge most excellent. A man falls from a cliff. This physical event is certainly bad in that it entails a cessation of all organic and psychical activity in the man. But if physical activity were to be proved essentially teleological, we should have to insist that in this catastrophe some good does occur, though only on a lowly plane. For the fall is the free activity of certain ultimate physical units. This primitive good, however, is more than counterbalanced by the evil of the destruction of the man as a highly organized living being.83

Now it is obvious that, for instance, good food is so called because it favours the general teleological tendency of organisms to maintain themselves. It nourishes, and is not indigestible. Good weather, no less clearly, is that kind of weather which in general favours human activities. A bad fall is a fall which does harm to the body, and so prevents its natural behaviour. A bad pain, though it is hated for its intrinsic character, owes its hatefulness apparently to its being a symptom of the destruction of living tissue, of tissue which tends to maintain itself in a state of organization. Moreover, as we have seen, there is reason to say that the painfulness of ‘pain’ sensa is constituted by our tendency to shun them.

Often, no doubt, when we say that a thing is good we seem to mean merely that it is a perfect instance of its kind. Thus a good circle is a fairly accurate approximation to the form of perfect circularity. We may be tempted to think of it as ‘trying’ to be a perfect circle; and we speak of it as good in so far as it succeeds in attaining this ‘form’ to which we suppose it to approximate. Similarly, we may speak of a good knife, meaning an instrument that approximates to the ideal form which a knife should have in order to be wholly a knife, lacking nothing, and having no irrelevant features. Thus in so far as the instrument really is a knife, and not something other than a knife, it is a good knife; in so far as it fails to be a knife, it is an imperfect or bad knife. In the same sense we may speak even of a good knave, implying that this knave is a complete and typical specimen of knavery, that his nature is not alloyed with traits of any nature incompatible with knavery.

In the actual world there are no perfect knaves or knives or circles. But in each of these cases goodness consists in approximation to an ideal. In so far as the thing falls short of that which (we suppose) is its own ideal nature, it is not its own true self. It is internally discrepant, logically incomplete, not a self-contained individual, but a sort of mixture of various conflicting forms: In fact, if that which is logically discrepant with itself cannot be real, it seems to follow that in so far as a thing falls short of perfection it is not fully real. Thus the good and the real come to be identified. On this view, then, there is not one goodness, but as many kinds of goodness as there are forms to which things approximate. The goodness of circles is quite different from that of knives; and the goodness of knives has nothing in common with the goodness of knaves. And there is yet another goodness of bucketfuls, and another of mountains, and still another of conduct.

But what reason have we to say that an actual knife or mountain strives toward, or approximates to, any form other than its actual form? And what right have we to say that a good knife is more real than a bad one? And if a bad knave is less real than a perfect knave, is a bad citizen also less real than a perfect citizen? Everything which exists does exist. Even a half-hearted villain is a perfect instance of half-hearted villainhood. Everything fulfils its own nature perfectly. Why ‘ought’ it to have some other nature?

Evidently behind this notion that goodness is conformity to type, there must be some demand for the type, some purpose which needs something for its fulfilment. When a man is illustrating geometry, and equally when he is making a wheel, a true circle fulfils his need better than an imperfect one. The form of a knife is determined by the need for a cutting instrument. And the form of a knave is determined by the purpose of some one who needs a knave, whether to commit a murder or adorn a novel. Moreover, for some murders and for some novels the half-hearted knave may be more satisfactory than the thorough kind.

The case of the knave in the novel is particularly significant. For just as in music we demand those intervals which are neither too trite nor too awkward for our grasp, so in other cases we often judge that to be good, the form of which is intelligible, but not too easily intelligible. Further, just as in music taste has developed so as to prize ever subtler harmonies and rhythms, so in other spheres we may learn to grasp, and to demand, ever more complex forms. Nor does this only hold good of art. At one mental level we may commend most highly the simple virtues, such as physical courage and generosity; but later we may appreciate more complex forms of conduct.

Even in the case of aesthetic value ‘good’ means fulfilling to some need; and, as always, the need is objective to the value-judgment. On one theory of art a good picture successfully and harmoniously presents the symbolical fulfilment of various human tendencies, which are all of them tendencies discovered in organisms, societies, and the inorganic world. But on another theory of art, which, indeed, is not incompatible with the former, the artist discovers in the external certain suggestions of rhythm and form, which in nature are never perfectly fulfilled. These rhythms and forms he disentangles from irrelevant accompaniments, and presents them (in the medium of his art) as perfected fulfilments of tendencies. Now these tendencies are not strictly tendencies of nature, though they are, indeed, capacities of nature. They are tendencies which arise from the conjunction of nature and the artist’s psychical capacity. Nevertheless, they are objective to the act which values their fulfilment. In the case of music, apart from any utilization of the fused associations of sounds and rhythms, the artist strives to present the fulfilment of certain formal potentialities of sound. In literature fused and unfused associations of words, phrases, and rhythms, playa great part, affording symbolical fulfilment of various human tendencies; but also there is again some fulfilment of the formal capacities of sound.

Similarly, the intellectual inquirer discovers in his field certain suggestions of explanatory principles none of which, on the face of it, is quite capable of ordering the facts. For him, then, that principle is good which ‘fulfils the demands of’ many facts harmoniously. He does not call the principle good merely because it satisfies his own demand for a solution; he calls it good because it is the fulfilment of suggestions given to him by the facts themselves, and thought of as tendencies, or at least capacities, of the facts. But, as in the case of art, the tendencies are not really tendencies of the facts alone; they arise through the conjunction of the facts and his psychical capacity. But though they are thus tendencies grounded in his psychical capacity, they are none the less objective to the act of valuing their fulfilment.

Even the good that is called ‘moral’ is essentially relative to the fulfilment of some tendency logically prior to its own fulfilment. Some, no doubt, have argued that moral right and wrong are absolute, and not relative to any end, that they are characters inherent in certain forms of conduct themselves, just as flatness and sharpness are supposed to be inherent in a spade, and not relative to our needs. To lie, they tell us, is intrinsically evil, whether the consequences of any particular lie be good or bad. But this view is not borne out by the facts of our moral experience, nor by the progressive criticism of the moralities of different eras. In practice we give reasons for our moral condemnation of lying. Either we say that it is contrary to the will of God, which implies that it thwarts a tendency which, in God’s mental content, gives rise to his conation; or we say that it conflicts with an impersonal and universal moral law, which means (if it means anything) that it conflicts with a need of the universe; or we point out that, if lying were sanctioned in human society, there would be an end to the mutual confidence upon which society is based. In fact, in this last case, we explain the rightness of truth-telling as instrumental to a good which we regard as intrinsic, namely, the fulfilment of the needs of society, or of individuals in social relation. Most persons are willing to lie to save a life, or for the sake of some cause which they regard as of supreme importance. But they do so with a feeling of guilt. And though this feeling is often merely habitual, or the outcome of a superstitious belief in absolute morality, it may be partly justified by the fact that any lie, in however good a cause, may do some hurt to social confidence. Finally it may be held that lying is bad because, apart from any other effects, it thwarts the cognitive tendency of the listener. A need for truth is implied in his nature as a being capable of knowing.

It is clear, then, that the good which is called moral is like all goods, essentially a fulfilment, and is inconceivable apart from some prior demand. And the demand itself is necessarily the outcome of some objective tendency.

In fact it is impossible to find anything whatever that is good which is not either itself a case of fulfilment of some tendency or capacity objective to the act of valuing, or a means toward such fulfilment, or at least a symptom of such fulfilment. Of course there are many cases in which, although a thing affords fulfilment, we do not call it good. It is said to be not good to sleep when duty calls; yet sleep is a fulfilment of organic tendency. But sleep, regarded in abstraction from its extra-organic consequences, is considered good; and it is so considered simply in that it is the fulfilment of a tendency. Instrumentally it may be bad; intrinsically it is good. Of all such cases we may say that in so far as they are less than good they are also less than fulfilment; and that, on the other hand, in so far as they are fulfilments, though of a minor kind, they are also goods, though of a minor kind.

B. The Meaning of Better and Best

If the essential meaning of ‘good’ is fulfilling, or favourable to free activity, what is the essential meaning of ‘better’? What do we mean when we say that one thing is better than another? Clearly, when we are judging merely from the point of view of some single tendency, we call that ‘better’ which affords more fulfilment to the tendency in question. For instance, when we are aware of an impulse to eat, and are thoroughly hungry, a solid meal is judged better than a snack; and half a loaf is better than no bread. When a society is hampered by foreign domination, that policy is the better which will produce the more freedom.

On the other hand, when we are comparing the fulfilment of one tendency with the fulfilment of another, we have to pass value-judgments on the tendencies themselves. Sometimes we may be able to compare the extent of the reality which expresses itself in each tendency. Thus the tendency of a raindrop to trickle down a window-pane expresses less of the real than the tendency of a river in spate. The tendency of one man to seek nourishment expresses less of the real than the tendency of a famished mob, or the will of their protagonist who voices their demands.

Of course such simple quantitative comparisons are not often possible. And if we were to leave the matter thus, we should be justly charged with the error of reducing the qualitative concept ‘better’ much too glibly to the crude quantitative concept ‘fulfilling more tendencies’. And indeed the phrase ‘more tendencies’ would be very inadequate, as its significance is not merely quantitative but numerical. In respect, indeed, of tendencies of the same hierarchical level, that course is better which actually fulfils more tendencies; but the essential principle of comparisons is: that is better which consists of the fulfilling of ‘more of the tendency or capacity or potentiality of teleologically active substance’. This, I submit, is the principle which in fact we do finally apply when we have to compare the goodness of things. For instance, if I say of two men that X is better than Y, I mean, apart from their social instrumentality, that X is living the fuller life. Each of them is a teleologically active substance capable of physical and psychical activity. Each of them, for instance, tends to preserve himself intact as an organism, and to control his environment in relation to whatever ends he has espoused; and X is better (in these respects), the more accurately he behaves in relation to these ends. Again, each tends to cognize his environment and to conform his will to his cognition of objective tendencies. And X is better the more he succeeds in these activities. He is better, in fact, the wider and deeper and more accurate his knowledge, and the more rational his will. And not only so, but also he is better the more capacity he has for such activities in his innate and acquired constitution. Thus in the last resort the difference between them is not like the difference between red and green, but like the difference between more red and less red. In fact it is, after all, at bottom a quantitative difference.

It may be objected that I do not show how this principle of comparison is to be applied. But I claim to have shown, at any rate, what the principle is that we do attempt to apply when we call one thing better than another. The difficulty of applying it accurately is no argument against the contention that we do apply it, or intend to apply it. If it be objected that, for instance, in the case of the man who falls down a cliff and is killed, the principle cannot apply in comparing the living activity of the man with the physical activity of his atoms in his fall and destruction, the answer once more is that this is the principle which in fact we do apply. We know that the man’s .life consists in complex teleological Activity, while physical activity appears not to do so. If we believed that physical activity were the more complete expression of the teleological nature of substance, we should judge it also the better. To make the one judgment is to make the other. But in preferring the living man we prefer what we rightly or wrongly believe to be the more complete expression of the nature of substance.

Here I would emphasize an important point, even at the risk of repetition. I have argued that by ‘better’ we mean fulfilling more of the tendency or capacity of active substances. This theory purports to be a generalization from our actual preferences. Obviously the mere fact that preference occurs does not prove the truth of this theory of preference. But the theory is derived from a critical inspection of, and induction from, actual preferences, together with what I take to be the implications of the hormic principle in psychology. According to my interpretation of the hormic principle, conation is essentially the espousal of objective teleological tendencies. Preference then, when it is not distorted by automatism, should consist in espousal of the greater objective fulfilment. And in fact (so I submit) careful inspection of preference confirms this view.

In comparing the man and the atoms of his body, we have to take into account the principle of emergence. And it is in cases where emergent differences occur that ‘better’ is regarded most emphatically as qualitative. For the emergent activity is in fact different qualitatively from the reducible. But in judging the one ‘better’ than the other, we are essentially judging it to be that in which the capacity of the active substance is more fully expressed. Thus in the last resort, though the activities which we compare differ qualitatively, we compare them in respect of a supposed underlying quantitative difference. Thus, although in these cases it is impossible to measure the degree of betterness, ‘better’ is, even here, a quantitative concept. I have assumed that the fulfilment of the emergent activity of the whole would be generally judged better than the fulfilment of the reducible activity of the parts disorganized. Whether it really is better, is a question of fact which could only be answered by discovering whether or not it is actually a greater fulfilment. I have suggested that this may well be the case. I have conceived the emergent activity as constituting a greater fulfilment even for the part itself, as in human society the individual’s social activity is experienced as a greater fulfilment for the individual than merely egoistic activity. This is open to dispute. But the point relevant to our present discussion is that, if and when we intuitively judge an emergent activity better than a reducible activity, what we are doing is judging, rightly or wrongly, that it constitutes a greater fulfilment. For instance we may intuitively judge it better, i.e. more fulfilling of active substance; and then we may seek to prove that in fact it is more fulfilling, i.e. better. Of course both the intuitive judgment and the reasoning process may be erroneous.

Sometimes in comparing tendencies we may be able to discover some more fundamental end which is served by both tendencies. Then we can judge the two tendencies (or activities) in relation to that end. Thus within the individual we say that those activities are better which contribute more to the maintenance and harmonious development of the individual. Similarly in the case of societies, those activities are better which contribute more to the development of the society. But as between an individual’s fulfilment and a society’s, the latter is likely to be better in that it is probably the fulfilment of a greater whole with tendencies emergent in social organization. But let us not forget that the will of an individual or a minority may more truly express the need of a society than the will of an unenlightened majority.

We may conclude then that the essential meaning of ‘better’ is simply ‘more fulfilling’ or ‘more expressive of the nature of active substance’; and that there is both a better which is related to any single tendency, and a better which involves the comparative evaluation of tendencies, either in respect of the extent of reality expressed, in them, or in relation to some major tendency to which they should be subordinate. For instance, as we have seen, the tendencies which the parts of a whole would have in isolation from the whole, should be subordinated to the emergent tendencies of the whole. But in human society the tendencies of the whole and of the parts are inextricably interwoven. The needs of society are the needs of its individual members, but they are the needs of the-individuals-in-relation. And from this relation the distinctively social needs emerge. The ideally social individual needs harmonious fulfilment of all individuals even more than the fulfilment of himself as a private person. For his mental content is (in the ideal case) the society of which his person is but one member. We may say, then, that, from the social point of view, that is the better which affords the greater harmonious fulfilment of individuals; but further that those individual needs are the better needs which are the more social, since the more social needs are capable of the richer fulfilment. It should be remembered also that not only the needs of extant individuals are to be taken into account, but also the needs of future generations.

We thus discover an important corollary to this account of ‘better’. If that is better which is, or is instrumental to, the greater fulfilment of tendencies, and especially of the tendencies of greater wholes, it follows that that is also better which brings into being more tendencies, and greater wholes with higher emergent tendencies. Thus in making our value-judgments we must take into account the possibility of modifying the nature of individuals and of society so that new and richer fulfilments may occur. We must, that is, take into account not only extant tendencies but also capacities.

We may now consider the most abstract meaning of the phrases ‘the best’, ‘the good’, ‘the ideal’; though we cannot at this stage inquire into the more concrete character of the ideal which is implied in the nature of the world as we know it. In general that is ‘the best’ in relation to a given tendency, or whole of tendencies, which would afford complete fulfilment to the tendencies concerned. Further, in relation to the whole universe there is a sense in which ‘the best’ is the complete fulfilment of all actual and possible tendencies of every rank, including the tendencies of the whole as a whole. But such an ideal is clearly unattainable, since tendencies conflict. We must, therefore, be content for practical purposes to mean by ‘the ideal’ the greatest possible fulfilment of tendencies in the universe. In general, we may say that the ideal is that the universe should achieve such a reorganization of its nature that obstruction may be so far as possible eliminated, and that the richest possible tendencies of the highest possible rank may be completely fulfilled, along with as much minor fulfilment as may be.

But we must further insist that, though conflict is itself evil, since it involves resistance of activity, yet if, as seems likely, it is sometimes the indispensable ground from which higher tendencies may emerge, then it is better that there should be conflict than a barren harmony. Indeed, there is some reason to suppose that conflict of subordinate units, though only conflict within special limits, is essential for the occurrence of organism.

Tendencies of lower ranks also, however, even to the lowest, must be fulfilled as far as this is possible without detriment to the higher. But only so far as this is possible. For we agreed long ago that the most complete fulfilment of anything is its fulfilment as a member of an emergent whole greater than itself.

There is an objection to this view that the ideal is the greatest possible fulfilment of tendency. Regarding the total universe of existence, and not merely that part of it which is teleologically active, the greatest possible fulfilment, we may be told, is just that actual amount of fulfilment which does occur. For where there is conflict the stronger must win. In every case of conflict the greatest possible fulfilment, therefore, is always achieved.

We may meet this objection by pointing out the ambiguity of the word ‘possible’ in this connexion. What does necessarily occur is the greatest possible fu1fi1ment of certain active substances in a certain extant pattern or configuration; what does not necessarily occur is the greatest possible fulfilment of those active substances themselves, of their individual tendencies and capacities. Owing to their relationship they may _hinder one another. We may imagine a universe in which opposing forces were permanently balanced in a state of strain or tension. Here some slight rearrangement, even if for the moment it were to entail less fulfilment, might produce greater fulfilment for both sides in the long run, and might perhaps even favour the emergence of new activities. But, apart from the emergence of new activities, it is clear that each antagonist in every conflict might be diverted so as to avoid collision with the other. And so each might achieve free activity. In a purely physical universe such interference were obviously impossible. But of every kind of universe we may say that it should be so ordered that all its substances should achieve free activity to the fullest ‘possible’ extent, and that all latent capacities should be fully expressed.

C. The Meaning of Ought

At an earlier stage of this inquiry I offered a psychological description of the fact that what is believed to be the greater objective fulfilment is not always chosen. On such occasions we judge that we ‘ought’ to have chosen otherwise. We may, that is, recognize that the end which we have rejected has in some sense a claim on us. It is now time to attempt a logical analysis of the nature of this claim.

Let us first consider the meanings of the word ‘ought’. The word is not only used in a ‘moral’ sense. We may say, for instance, ‘If he desired to reach Paris to-night, he ought to have travelled by air.’ Here it is implied that the ‘ought’ is relative to a desire and a certain physical situation. Had he not desired to reach Paris to-night, it would be meaningless to say (in this ‘non-moral’ sense) that he ought to have travelled by air. All that is intended by the statement is that, in the given circumstances, the only means of fulfilling his desire was to travel by air. Given the desire and the circumstances, the ‘ought’ follows, whether or not he is in fact intelligent enough or energetic enough to carry it out.

The word ‘ought’ may be used in this ‘non-moral’ sense with reference also to one person’s desire and another person’s action. We may, for instance, say ‘I desired him to reach Paris to-night; therefore from my point of view he ought to have travelled by air.’ He, of course, will not admit this obligation unless he has entered into my point of view, unless, in fact, he and I have been determined by cognition of the same objective tendencies. Yet, whether he has entered into my point of view or not, and whether or not my desire is a just expression of all the objective tendencies in the situation, it. is nevertheless true universally that from the point of view which I happen now to occupy he ought to have travelled by air. Within the universe of discourse of my desire and the physical circumstances, he ought to have travelled by air. On the other hand within the universe of discourse of his desire and the physical circumstances it is untrue that he ought to have travelled by air. In each case the ‘ought’ is universal. It is true universally that in such a situation, not complicated by other factors, so and so ought to be done.

But my desire and his desire, though they are centres of universes of discourse which are distinct, refer to one and the same world of fact. And in that world their fulfilments may be incompatible. Thus arises the distinctively moral meaning of ‘ought ‘. One of the desires, we may judge, morally ought to be fulfilled, and the other ought not. We evaluate the two desiderata with reference to some standard independent of each desire.

Within the merely prudential sphere it is easy to find a measure for this comparative evaluation. Desires, as we have already seen, are essentially desires for the fulfilment of cognized objective needs. We often say that, though a man desires so and so, he does not need it, and ought not to have it, and even ought not to desire it. When a man’s desires conflict, we judge them with reference to his needs; but of course we may judge mistakenly as to what his needs really are. Of an engineer we may say that he ‘ought to have known’ that a certain shaft would not stand so great a strain. In such a case we mean that one whose activity is that of engineering had a need which only the knowledge of certain facts could fulfil, whether he desired such knowledge or not. Indeed, he ‘ought to have desired’ such knowledge, since he did in fact need it. (And when we say that he ‘had a need’, we mean in this case that the need was involved, whether he knew it or not, in some active objects embraced within his mental content.)

Clearly, then, within the prudential sphere we judge desires in relation to a supposed need of the organism or of the person, and may say that in general a man’s desires ought to correspond with his need. We judge, in fact, with reference to a universe of discourse in which the supposed need of the man is the determining factor. And if we are asked by what right we subordinate his felt desires to his perhaps unconscious need, we justify ourselves by insisting that every desire essentially derives from just the consciousness of a need, even when that consciousness consists of a grossly erroneous judgment. The desire has, so to speak, no rights against the need, because the objective determinant of the desire is the need itself. From this it follows that we may translate the sentence, ‘Since he desired to reach Paris to-night, he ought to have travelled by air,’ into the sentence, ‘In consequence of the need of a certain object within his mental content, namely, the need for him to reach Paris to-night, there occurred also the need for him to travel by air.’ In fact ‘ought’, in this ‘non-moral’ sphere, depends wholly on need.

But beyond the merely prudential sphere the situation is apparently different. For the needs of different individuals may conflict; and then we may judge that the need of the one ought to be fulfilled and the need of the other ought to be sacrificed. What can we mean by this? In general what is it that we really mean when we say that a man ‘morally’ ought to love his neighbours, or ought to educate his children, or ought to obey the laws, or ought to serve God, or ought to behave so as to advance an ideal even at the cost of his own life?

Clearly we do not mean, as we do in the case of prudence, that the man himself really needs to do these things in order to fulfil his own nature. Even if it be true that he cannot, as a matter of fact, attain fulfilment without such conduct, without, for instance, sacrificing his life in the cause, we do not mean that he ought to behave in this way just because his fulfilment demands it.

On the contrary we mean (whether with reason or not) that the universe itself is such that, when we take into account all that we know of its nature, there is seen to be a dominant need whose fulfilment demands these activities on the part of a man. And when we say that this need has a ‘claim’ on each of us, we mean, reasonably or unreasonably, that goodness must be universally grounded; and that in the universal view the fulfilment of this supreme need appears as the intrinsically best end; and that any fulfilment which conflicts with this ideal is therefore necessarily not sanctioned in the universal view. If it is still asked, why the universal need should supplant our private needs, we might reply that it is the expression of an entity objectively far greater than any private person, and that because of its greatness we intuitively recognize its claim. Such in brief would seem to be the essence of what we mean by moral obligation.

D. Logical Basis of Obligation

We must now try to state the logical basis or justification of this sense of obligation toward something regarded as other than the experient. And first it must be insisted that any account of obligation which slurs over the distinction between self and not-self is necessarily false. The essence of obligation is that it is felt toward something regarded as distinct from the subject. Morality does not arise if the major need, which is the source of. the moral claim, is felt as a need of the greater self. The essential fact about the moral claim is that it is not logically grounded in the need for self-fulfilment, even though acceptance of it may incidentally lead to self-fulfilment. If the self is fulfilled in moral behaviour, this is because it has embraced something intrinsically good; the ideal is not good because it is the fulfilment of self. The characteristic fact about obligation is that it is felt, not as an impulse toward self-fulfilment, but as an impulse of loyalty to something thought of as good intrinsically, as being good whether it is within the mental content or not. Perhaps this feeling is merely illusory; perhaps it is not. But clearly it cannot be given an adequate logical justification by any theory which seeks to explain it in terms of its precise contrary.

The starting-point of an adequate theory of obligation is a clear understanding of the objective source of conation. We must hold firmly to the fact that conation is in essence neither the pursuit of feeling, nor the pursuit of exclusively organic fulfilment, nor yet the pursuit of exclusively personal fulfilment; but is primarily the espousal of whatever tendencies are cognized within the objective mental content. Though conation is, of course, a unique mental act, and is not ‘forced’ by anything external, it is also essentially directed, or suggested, by an objective tendency within the cognized field. And this epistemologically objective tendency, however erroneous, owes its dynamic nature in the last resort to the ontologically objective world. Conation is, so to speak, the ‘living through’, or conscious championing of, the process, or drive, or resisted thrust, of some reality other than the act of conation. The direction of every act of conation is thus entirely derived from cognition of the objective tendency that is being conated. Conation without such an objective tendency is simply inconceivable, meaningless.

The ground of obligation, then, is to be seen through an understanding of the nature of conation itself. Not that the logical ground of obligation lies in the nature of conation, or of conative beings; we have insisted that it does not. But by studying the nature of conation we discover that at all levels it entails an intuitive and unanalysable apprehension of an objective claim. Not only in the recognized moral sphere, but in every conation, the motive source is this intuition of objective tendency as having a claim, or constituting a claim, on any conative being who cognizes it. Any such claim has, of course, only provisional authority. It may have to be denied because it conflicts with objectively more important claims. Its universality may have to be restricted; but in itself it is presented as universal.

Conation itself, then, even when it is distorted by automatism, is in its very nature an intuitive loyalty to objective tendency. In every conative act, even the most automatic, we express, as it were, allegiance to some part or aspect of the world. And we do so, not because the object of our conation happens to satisfy some demand intrinsic to ourselves as conative beings, but because the object itself, through our cognition, rouses us to conativity. Our allegiance is doubtless of our own giving, but also it is of the object’s awakening. Our conativity is suggested in us (though not created) by the object cognized as tending. If this is true, namely that every conative act is essentially a championing of some tendency of the real, the final goal of all conation is the greatest possible fulfilment of the whole real. This conclusion follows, not from any rational impulse in ourselves, nor from any real will for self-fulfilment, but from the nature of every object of conation. In awakening to allegiance to one object, we incur obligation to all; since all alike are objects.

To say that conativity is awakened by the object is to say that the fulfilment of the objective tendency or capacity is intuited as intrinsically desirable, or as having, or rather being, an intrinsic good. The only kind of object which has this intrinsic goodness is, as we have seen, the fulfilment of objective tendency or capacity. Or, more precisely, by goodness we mean essentially fulfilment of objective tendency. For it is meaningless to assert that anything which has no tendency, or capacity, or need, can have a claim. The concept of ‘claim’ involves a something active and unfulfilled. Goodness, were it a static character of objects, and not the fruition of capacity, would simply occur or not occur as sensory characters do; and its absence could not demand our activity. Whatever degree of cognitive skill we employ for the true apprehension of the object, its fulfilment, when once it is cognized, is intuited as (apart from conflict with other active objects) intrinsically desirable. And, apart from the distortion of automatism, the greater fulfilment is intuited as more desirable than the less, as intrinsically better than the less. Thus in the object of every conative act it is implied that the intrinsic best is the greatest possible fulfilment of the objective world. And this ideal has a ‘claim’ over us in the sense that, in spite of our ignorance and our automatism, each of our conative acts accepts as its goal an objective fulfilment which is but an abstraction from the objective ideal. Since all conation is loyalty to objective tendency, we inevitably acknowledge, even in the meanest act of conation, the claim of the ideal. Or rather, whether we consciously acknowledge the claim or not, it holds of us. For every act of conation springs from an intuition of an intrinsic good; and from the many intrinsic goods arises the possibility of an intrinsic best which is most desirable or ought most to be desired, whether anyone desires it or not.

Here an objection will perhaps be made and must be squarely faced. After all, it may be said, obligation remains a mystery or an illusion. You may continue to insist that conation is evoked by awareness of objective tendency, and that when it is unhampered by automatism or by ignorance it seeks the objectively greatest possible fulfilment; but this makes no difference to the fact that we do often knowingly seek the less fulfilment rather than the greater. You still fail to tell in what sense conation ought to seek its ‘natural’ goal rather than the unnatural and irrational goal which it does seek on these occasions. Within the prudential sphere desires are admittedly to be judged in relation to the individual’s own need, since desire is derived from need. But you have rejected the view that the claim of the moral ideal rests on its being the real need of the individual. You insist that his need may conflict with the ideal; and that if he has come to need the ideal, this is because he has discovered the ideal to be good intrinsically, and has conformed his desire to the ideal. Surely in this insistence on the absolute objectivity of the ideal you destroy its moral claim over the individual. Unless in some sense he really wills it, it cannot be for him a ground of action.

In fact it may be objected that after all we have derived obligation from the nature of conation; and that thus we have fallen back on the orthodox view that obligation holds because the real will of the agent is the good will. For in effect we have said that the conative being is such that, unless he wills the ideal, he is false to his own nature as a conative being, and that this claim of his own conative nature constitutes the moral claim. Were our nature such that we inclined to conate not objective fulfilment but objective unfulfilment, the ideal of fulfilment would have no claim on us.

This objection must be answered as follows. We have not derived obligation from the nature of conation. We have only said that the logical ground of obligation is to be seen through an understanding of the nature of conation. The ground itself, we have said, lies in the nature of the dynamic objects which are cognized. We intuitively cognize the activity of objects as constituting a claim on all conative beings. Thus all conation is essentially moral, even when it is not as moral as it ought to be! It is essentially moral in that it springs from an unanalysable intuition that a certain objective fulfilment is desirable in the strict ethical sense; that in fact it ought to be desired simply because of the dynamic nature of the object, and not because of any psychical consequences.

Here, then, we come in line with the intuitionists, though we apply their principle in a wider field. They hold that moral obligation is based on a unique intuition that certain kinds of acts ought to be done, and others ought not to be done, and that this obligation applies universally. They deprecate any attempt to explain the moral sense in terms of pleasure, or self-fulfilment. This doctrine of intuitive moral apprehension we accept; but we must apply it differently. For we recognize the same unique intuition as the source of every desire, and the same assertion of universality. As, in the sphere of cognition, credulity is primitive and doubt the outcome of conflict of beliefs, so, in the sphere of conation, the assertion of the universality of the claim of each conated tendency upon all beings capable of serving it, is primitive, and is only qualified in so far as tendencies are found to conflict.

The objection that I have attempted to meet really assumes what it seeks to prove. To the theory that motive is essentially objective it replies by assuming that motive must necessarily be subjective. In postulating that our nature might be such as to conate unfulfilment of objects rather than fulfilment it misses the point. Only through the suggestion of cognized tendencies does our dormant conative capacity awake and direct itself. Conation is in essence conation of objective activity.

E. Epistemological Considerations

Another difficulty must be faced. Conation has been derived from the cognition of tendency; and the moral claim has been grounded in the cognition of the greatest possible fulfilment of tendency within the objective mental content. The ground, then, (we may be told), is not the object itself, or the tendency itself in the object; it is simply the cognition of the tendency of the object. Thus the logical basis of obligation would seem to be, after all, not the need of objects themselves, but the individual’s need to harmonize his conation with his cognition. And so the vaunted objectivity of the moral claim turns out to be only an epistemological, and not an ontological, objectivity. In what sense, then, can that immense part of the world which is beyond the individual’s mental horizon be said to have a moral claim on him? For instance in what sense, if any, is it true that a man who is ignorant of his neighbour’s need, or his society’s need, ought to discover it and strive to fulfil it?

A full answer to this point would doubtless entail a long epistemological discussion. But here we need only note that there is reason to hold that the object of knowledge is in principle, and apart from error, identical with the existent object. When, and if, we know a thing, we know it, and not merely a ‘thought’ of it. Doubtless there is error in all our experience; but in principle what we know is the real itself. The content of our cognition is given us by, and is in part identical with, an independent real. And so our cognized tendencies are given us by, and are in part identical with, tendencies of the independent real. Thus if the conativity of all conative acts owes its being, in part, to cognition of tendencies, it ultimately owes its being, in part, to the tendencies of the real itself. It is, in principle, the real which gets itself known by us and gets its fulfilment willed. But owing to our private limitations and automatisms it gets itself known imperfectly and willed distortedly. To say that the fulfilment of the real ‘ought’ to be willed, is to say that the real has a capacity for being known, and for its fulfilment to be willed by us, but that owing to our limitations this capacity is very imperfectly fulfilled, and therefore constitutes a perpetual demand upon us. This demand thus arises from the fact that all conation is an espousal of objective tendency.

But even yet there is an obscurity. Obligation has, indeed, been successfully derived, not merely from cognition, but from the tendencies of the real objects of knowledge. We have certainly passed beyond the psychological to the ontological ground. Nevertheless, there still seems to be a gulf, not indeed between mental states and the real, but between those reals which are known and those which are not known. What claim have the tendencies of unknown reality on us?

The answer is simple. We have already seen it clearly expressed in the ethics of Professor Hobhouse. The good is objective and universal. It does not depend on any particular individual’s pleasure, nor on his conation. Nor does it depend on any particular individual’s cognition or view of the world. I have suggested that this principle of rationality does not really hold in a system which makes pleasure constitutive of good; but the ethical theory which I have advocated, having derived obligation from beyond the sphere of private mental states, must clearly accept a universal point of view, and allow to all reals an equal status, whether known or unknown.

There is yet another possibility of misunderstanding. The moral claim, we say, is the claim which is intuited as made by all the unfulfilled needs of the universe. Of course we know very little about the universe, and almost nothing about the universe as a whole; but the moral claim is experienced as a claim made on the part of all unfulfilled needs within our mental content, i.e. all unfulfilled needs cognized in the universe. Our view of the needs of the universe may be very mistaken, owing to our ignorance; but this is irrelevant to the nature of moral experience, which is obligation toward any teleologically active substance, and therefore to all such in their degree. I do not, then, suggest that each case of obligation is grounded in the need of the universe as an organic whole. Each is grounded in some particular need, whether the universe is organic or not. But all must be taken into account. If the universe as a temporal organic whole has or could have needs, we are morally bound by it. If not, we are still bound by the sum of needs within it, simply for their own sake. If, on the other hand, the universe is a supra-temporal organic whole, and necessarily perfect, then, indeed, moral obligation is not relevant to it. But in my last three chapters I shall try to show that we may and do have ethical experience in relation to it, namely, we may admire it for the perfection of its fulfilment.

F. Summary

I will now summarize the main argument of this chapter, and indeed the central theory of this book. We habitually use the word ‘good’ in two entirely different senses, namely, sometimes as a predicate of the act of valuation itself, and sometimes as a predicate of the object valued. Much ethical disagreement arises from the fact that the disputants are assuming different meanings of ‘good’, so that to each his own theory seems plausible and the other impossible. Sometimes, however, ethical theories merely confuse the two meanings, and by ambiguity seem to escape the difficulties of both. If moral obligation is to be taken seriously and not as a mere delusion, we must, in ethics, stick to the second sense rigorously, but with open eyes. We must seek to discover what general character objective to the act of valuation is consciously valued, and what condition of an object is intuited as exercising a moral claim. I have tried to answer these questions by saying that primarily what we mean by ‘good’ in an ethical sense is the fulfilment, or progressive fulfilling, of teleological tendencies objective to consciousness. This view, I submit, avoids the difficulties both of the self-fulfilment theory and of the theory according to which ‘good’ is a simple quality. The former is inadequate because at heart it is egoistic. The trouble of the latter lies in the meaninglessness of good when divorced from teleology. I, however, have derived ‘good’ from teleology, though not from the conscious act of striving. In Professor Moore’s theory ‘ought’ remains entirely unintelligible (not merely inexplicable, but meaningless), just because in his view ‘good’ is independent of any demand, need, lack; in fact, independent of any teleological activity. He is right in insisting on the intuitive basis of ethics; he is right that we intuit an objective claim. But for a claim to be intuited, there must be something intuited as having a need; there must be an object which is dynamic, not static.

Such being the ethical meaning of ‘good’, it follows that by ‘better’ we should mean ‘fulfilling more of the tendency or capacity of teleologically active substance’. This principle holds even in respect of tendencies of different emergent rank. By ‘the best’, or ‘the ideal’, we should mean the complete fulfilling of the capacity of the world.

Having thus formulated the basis of an ethical theory, I went on to found thereon a theory of moral obligation, which I summarize as follows. Every conative act entails an intuition of a claim made by some cognized object which is cognized as a teleologically active substance. This claim is intuited as a universal claim on any conative being. The act of conating its fulfilment is an act, not of mental content, but of an organism; and the organism has certain established behaviour-tendencies of its own. The rational ideal, the greatest possible progressive fulfilment of all active substances, entails the limitation and even the vetoing of many claims. Whether a conative being recognizes the ideal, and the claim of the ideal, or not, the claim holds of him; for it inheres, not in the nature of subjectivity, but in the nature of active substances. The nature of the claim of the ideal derives from the nature of the particular claims which we intuit; but the primary intuition of an objective claim cannot be explained. It is a brute fact of experience. When a conative being wills the fulfilment of objectively minor claims at the expense of objectively major claims, his will violates, not the nature of subjectivity, but the nature of the objective world. The moral situation arises from the fact that though conation is the act of an organism having subjective capacity, what needs to be conated through that subjectivity is distinct from that subjectivity. While subjects or organisms having subjective capacity can by their activity favour or thwart needs, those needs themselves emerge not from subjectivity but from the intrinsic nature of certain objects.

The foundation of this theory is the contention that we intuit teleologically active substances as exercising a moral claim, and that, after due criticism, nothing else can be discovered which exercises such a claim. The reader must decide for himself whether this generalization is true. I can only ask him to survey his own ethical experience, and make an induction therefrom. I can only ask him whether he does not in the last resort mean, by calling a thing ‘good’, that it is a fulfilment, or a progressive fulfilling, of teleological activity. In my own case at any rate, it seems clear that when I attend carefully to my ethical experience, I do intuit all teleological activity as exercising a claim on my subjectivity; and that on the other hand if I have ever felt obligation toward anything that turned out subsequently not to fall in this class, I have ceased to feel obligation toward it as soon as I have seen it in the new light.

Finally, if it be suggested that what ought to be achieved is not the mere fulfilment of objective teleological tendencies, but consciousness thereof, I reply that in view of the hormic principle it seems to be of the very essence of consciousness that it awakens in the service of ends prior to it, and objective to it. In fact I am forced to regard consciousness as in its very nature instrumental, and obligation as grounded not in it but in the teleologically active substances in whose activity consciousness itself is instrumental. This view, indeed, is regarded by many as hopelessly paradoxical, but only because they cannot refrain from assuming that instrumentality, and teleology itself, involve consciousness.

83 I am not, of course, suggesting that the cliff has an objective need to kill the man. Obviously it is entirely indifferent to the cliff’s nature whether he lives or dies. But the man’s fall constitutes a physical fulfilment of the man’s own matter (and, strictly speaking, of the whole planet to which he falls).


Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30