A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 5

Good as an Unique Quality

A. Ethical Differences of Professor Moore and Professor Field

HAVING considered the attempt to modify idealist ethics by a reinstatement of feeling as an essential factor in ‘good’, we will now discuss the view that ‘good’ is an unique, unanalysable, and indefinable quality of certain objects; that, in fact, we cannot conceivably describe goodness in terms of any other character. By no amount of talking, Professor G. E. Moore insists, can we tell a man what goodness is, when, though he has experience of pleasure or understanding of 'personality' or 'reality'; yet he has no intuition of the unique quality, good44. Of course, if he has that intuition, we may profitably confer with him as to what kinds of things are as a matter of fact good and what bad. And thus we may advance toward a better apprehension of the nature of the ideal, which would possess the unique quality, good, in the highest degree. But to define good is utterly impossible. We might as well try to describe yellow to a colour-blind man.

This unique quality, says Professor Moore, is easily confused with other qualities. For instance, we are apt to overlook the difference between judging a thing good in the ethical sense and merely being pleased with it ‘It is very difficult to see that by “approving” of a thing we mean feeling that it has a certain predicate — the predicate namely which defines the peculiar sphere of Ethics; whereas in the enjoyment of a thing no such unique object of thought is involved.'45

Many feel that this view is mistaken. Professor G. C. Field, for instance, declares that Professor Moore has after all given no reason in its favour46, and moreover that it is an unintelligible theory for the following reason. The goodness of a thing, according to Professor Moore, is itself the reason for our aiming at it. Just because a thing or event would have this intrinsic quality, goodness, We ought to try to bring it into being. This is what Professor Field finds unintelligible. For, he says, the mere cognition of an objective quality cannot possibly move us to valuatary action.47 It is only the desire for it which can do so. If goodness is an intrinsic quality of things, the mere fact that things have, or may have, this quality, cannot influence us. Intelligence by itself, as Aristotle said, has no motive power. Action ‘will not take place without the presence of a desire or some element of feeling or emotion.'48

It follows, then, that being an end is not a fact about things themselves at all. An end is necessarily an end for some one; things are made ends by being desired. To say that goodness is necessarily related to desire is to say. ‘that it makes its appeal to us because of a necessary connexion between something in it and something in our nature.' 49 It is this fact about the good ‘which gives it a claim on us, which makes it a possible motive to action, which, in short, makes it of any interest to us at all.’ Thus to call an object good means in the last analysis that it is 'an object which every one could not but desire if they realized its true nature.'50 And 'the ideal is of a certain character because human nature is of a certain character.'51

'It is the fact of this relation to our nature that makes it good.'52 Hence Professor Field judges that' the conception of good necessarily contains in itself a reference to some conscious being.'53

Here then we have two thinkers who disagree about the fundamental datum of ethics. Professor Moore is chiefly impressed by the objectivity of the character called good; and Professor Field is no less certain that good involves in its very essence a reference to the desires of conscious beings. The former, as a protagonist of realistic epistemology, comes to ethics with a zest for eradicating all traces of subjectivism. For, if in cognition it is a mistake to suppose that the object exists only in being known, similarly in our apprehension of value it may be false to suppose that the goodness of things consists only in their relation to valuing beings. Of volition and feeling we are told that ‘in so far as these words denote an attitude of the mind towards an object, they are themselves merely instances of Cognition; they differ only in respect of the kind of object of which they take cognizance, and in respect of the other mental accompaniments of such cognitions.'54 Therefore, since the object of a cognition must always be distinguished from the cognitive act which apprehends it, the particular kind of object called ‘good’ cannot derive its goodness from ‘being the object of certain kinds of will or feeling.’

Professor Field, on the other hand, though also a realist in epistemology, cannot accept the extreme realist view in ethics, since for him good is meaningless apart from desire. He says in effect that, though the ideal is what it is whether anyone likes it or not, yet desire is constitutive of goodness and of the ideal. And this view seems to him to follow from two facts, namely the fact that by ‘good’ we all mean something which does or should move us to voluntary action, and the fact that only desire possibly can move us to voluntary action. This then is his central conviction for the sake of which he has to reject Professor Moore’s central conviction of the absolutely objective nature of good.

B. Essentials of Professor Moore’s Theory

I believe it possible to accept the essential tenets of these two writers without contradiction, if we carefully reject from each what is unessential. The nerve of Professor Moore’s doctrine is that good is unanalysable and that it is objective. Very cogently he argues that, though good things may be complex wholes, the quality ‘good’ is itself simple, and cannot be exhibited as a whole of parts that are other than the quality ‘good’ itself.

But there is a possibility which Professor Moore ignores. Let us grant that there is a certain simple quality which, when we are thinking about values, we call ‘good.’ Possibly, however, that very quality may be encountered in other contexts. And possibly, through a failure clearly to distinguish the essential simple quality ‘good’ from its accompaniments in ethical contexts, we may not easily recognize that something encountered in other contexts really is precisely the quality called ‘good’ in ethical contexts. In fact, while it is quite true that there is a simple quality that is the very essence of what we mean by ‘good’, neither Professor Moore nor Professor Field, I should say, has clearly isolated this quality from its concomitants in ethical situations. Professor Field has failed to distinguish it from its effects on consciousness. Professor Moore, though making this distinction, has been so busy with the conventionally ethical aspect of his ‘unique quality’ that he has failed to discover its essential identity with a certain quality encountered elsewhere.

Professor Moore insists that of every definition of ‘good’, it is always possible to ask whether the subject so defined really is good; and the mere possibility of such a question, he says, shows that the definition has only defined good things, not goodness itself. 55 Professor Field answers that, in asking the question, 'you are still thinking of goodness as that vague and undefined something which it was to you before you began your speculation about its real nature.' 56 The fact that you can ask the question .means that you have not yet made up your mind about accepting the definition.’

This is true, but it is not quite a fair answer to Professor Moore. His point surely is that in definition you do not succeed in presenting the unique quality at all; you only present its relations; you only state the one kind of thing of which good is a predicate. If your definition claims actually to say what good itself is, your definition is confuted simply by our ability to distinguish between good and the predicate of the definition. Thus any definition which defines goodness itself in terms of pleasure, or the felt satisfaction of desire, or any other quality, is necessarily false, unless, after due inquiry about the meanings of the terms, you see that the proposition is simply tautological, in that its subject and its predicate are merely different names for the same thing.

Nevertheless we must be careful at this point not to go too far with Professor Moore. For it is possible that, though the subject term and the predicate term do as a matter of fact mean one identical quality, in common parlance the terms are applied to that quality in different universes of discourse; and that the identity of the quality in these two spheres has not hitherto been recognized.

Suppose that a certain simple quality, G, has been singled out as the very essence meant by ‘good’ in ethical contexts; and suppose that G turns out to be identical with a quality which, in other spheres, we call F. Then if we were to define F by means of its relations, what we had defined would be the identical quality called, alternatively, F and G. And if F were a quality of certain kinds of complex events, G might also be defined in terms of such events. Its relations, that is, would be defined by such events; but it would be an unanalysable quality.

In these circumstances it would be reasonable to ask whether the subject of the definition really were G, only if we were still uncertain either of the accuracy of the definition of F, or of the qualitative identity of F and G.

An illustration may help. It is clearly possible that a certain curve or rhythm well known to artists, in their work, might turn out to be identical with one well known to (let us say) biologists or engineers in very different contexts. Or it might even be that the same man knew the curve in both spheres, but had not noticed its identity. Similarly, then, it is possible that G might turn out to be identical with F. And so it would be possible theoretically to define G to a man who, having no experience of ethical situations, had at least encountered F in other regions.57

So far we have considered only Professor Moore’s contention that good is a simple quality, and have accepted it with a caveat that sometimes this quality may not be recognized. His other important contention is that the quality ‘good’ is objective to the mental act which recognizes it or merely cognizes it. Whatever it is a quality of, it is not a quality simply of a feeling or a value-judgment. Nor does it exist simply in being the object of a value-judgment. Sometimes, indeed, good is a quality of a whole in which feelings or value-judgments are members. Love, for instance, is said to be good. But the very feeling which feels love as good, or the very judgment that judges love good, does not itself create the goodness of love.

C. Essentials of Professor Field’s Theory

With part of this view, I expect, Professor Field would agree, but cautiously. He would perhaps distinguish between the feeling and the value-judgment, and declare that though good is not constituted by the value-judgment, it is constituted in part by consciousness of some kind.

I suggest, however, that his really important point is, not that good is relative to consciousness, but that it is relative to something which has indeed one: essential feature of desire, though it is not essentially conscious. We may for the present call this something ‘need’, if by that word we may explicitly deny all reference to consciousness. At a later stage I shall discuss ‘need’ in some detail; but for the purpose of the present discussion I may elucidate the concept as follows. A wide view of all manner of biological phenomena seems to show that organisms act in manners which are, within limits, definitely teleological. In varying circumstances, though of course only within certain limits, they act in such manners that some constant result is attained. We may therefore say that they tend to behave in certain teleological manners. In abnormal environments they may indeed act so as to defeat their own normal teleological nature; but this irregularity does not affect the general truth that their nature is observably teleological. Needs, then, are laid down in the nature of organisms, and may be inferred from careful study of their behaviour. Similarly the needs of one’s own nature may be inferred, up to a point, by careful study of one’s own behaviour. But needs are of different degrees of importance. Some are relatively fundamental and permanent, while others, derived in the last resort from the former, are relatively superficial and fleeting. The superficial needs of one’s own nature are easily apprehended; but the fundamental needs, of which the superficial needs are often very distorted expressions, are discovered only with difficulty. The needs of an organism are primarily needs for certain activities, such as (according to the nature of the particular organism) breathing, mating, intellectual inquiry, sociality, and so on; but we may also conveniently say that the organism needs whatever objects are necessary to the fulfilment of its activities. Thus it may need air, a mate, or books. Clearly since behaviour-tendency does not necessarily involve conscious conation, neither does need.

I am aware that Professor Field would object to this account of need; but his objections can best be faced at a later stage. He protests, quite rightly, I think, that it is meaningless to talk of goodness as being an intrinsic character of certain objects in precisely the same sense as yellow may be called an intrinsic character of objects. In every conceivable case a thing that is called ‘good’ is so called either because it is a means to the fulfilment of a need, or because it is the actual fulfilling of a need. Something or other which is a necessary factor in all desire, but which (as I shall presently argue) is logically prior to desire, creates the possibility of goodness. The fulfilment, or progressive fulfilling, of this drive, or thrust, or tendency, or need, is the very character that we mean by ‘good’. Were there no such drive towards fulfilment, the distinction between good and bad simply would not exist at all.

So much, but no more, in Professor Field’s view seems to me valid and very important. But he goes beyond this. He does not, of course, assume that this drive or thrust or need, which is the objective ground of the distinction between good and evil, must necessarily be conscious desire. On the contrary he recognizes that it is rarely fully conscious. But he holds that only in so far as it is capable of becoming conscious can it be a source of the distinction between good and evil. Were there no consciousness, he thinks, the essential quality that we mean by ‘good’ would not exist. I suggest that he ought not to say more than that the quality ‘good’ would not exist, were there no ‘drive’ in the objective world. It is true, of course, that were there no consciousness, value-judgment would not exist. And further it is true that, were there no living beings, very many extant good things would not exist. For living things have tendency, or need; and so their extinction would abolish certain possibilities of good and bad. But need, or at least ‘tendency’, the essential element in need, which (rather than desire) is the ground of good and bad — this does not, so far as I can see, involve consciousness.

There is another point on which Professor Field insists, but which, if not actually erroneous, is likely to lead to error. Of the ideal he says, as we have seen, that it is the fact of its relation to ‘our nature’ that makes it good,58 and that it 'has a certain character because human nature is of a certain character.'59 He supposes that desire rises out of something 'in our nature.'

What does this ‘in our nature’ really mean? Consider first the case of mere cognition. Clearly, unless we had in our nature some faculty of cognizing, we should not cognize at all. But, for there to be cognition, something else is needed as well as this factor in our nature, namely objects. What we cognize is in no sense dependent on our capacity for cognition, but only on present objects and their relations to past objects that we have experienced. Similarly, then, with conation, unless there were something in our nature to make us capable of conating, we should not conate at all. But, for there to be conation, something else is necessary. Needs must be cognized. Conation (by which I mean always a conscious activity) is inconceivable apart from the cognition of a need; and to say that the needs which we cognize are part of our nature is to beg the question. They are embraced within our nature in being cognized by us and conated by us; but they are not constituted needs by the mere fact that we cognize and conate them. My body may need food whether I desire it or not. It is an object whose nature is to behave in a certain complicated manner; and that manner entails the maintenance of a metabolic equilibrium. Similarly, society may need my service whether or not I recognize the need and will the service. In neither case is the need primarily an element in my nature as a cognizing and conating process.

Bearing in mind our discussion of the use of ‘mental content’ in Idealist ethics, we must realize that a need is only an element in ‘my nature’ in the sense that it is an element in my content. It is not an element in my nature as a subjective activity. Nor is the subjective activity, or process, simply an activity of the content. It is the subjective activity of an organism in relation to its psychological environment, in which environment the physical organism itself is an object over against its own subjective activity. Psychologically content is strictly and solely objective, and distinct from process. To describe our conation of the tendency of objects (including our own bodies) in terms of a ‘subjective tendency to conate objective tendency’ is barren.

When a child is hungry it is cognizing and conating a need of its body. Of course, it does not cognize it as a need to maintain a metabolic equilibrium, nor necessarily even as a need for food. If it is a baby, it may have no idea as to what it needs. Yet being hungry simply is the confused awareness of a bodily need. The essential nature of conation may be best seen in such simple activities as ‘wanting to sneeze’. You do not only sense the irritant stimulus; you are aware also of the organism as tending to behave. And cognition of this tendency is the objective source of the conation. The subjective source is merely the bare, undirected, capacity of conating something or other.

Professor Moore, indeed, is not justified in saying that cognition and conation differ only in respect of the objects 60 of which they take cognizance. For, after all, there is a difference between cognizing a need and actually desiring its fulfilment. Often the cognition occurs without the desire. But conation does seem to presuppose cognition, however vague a cognition. One cannot, strictly speaking, conate at all without in some sense cognizing the tendency that is conated. This, I suggest, is the element of truth in Professor Moore’s mistaken identification of cognition and conation. Unfortunately, he makes a further error. He ignores that the object of conation is always of a special kind. It is always something cognized (truly or falsely) as pressing in a certain direction, and requiring fulfilment. Often that which is cognized as thus needing is one’s own organism; but often it is something else.

In deriving desire from ‘something in our nature’ Professor Field is clearly right in a sense; but it is a sense ethically misleading, though psychologically important. In that all the needs that I conate are ipso facto made into my needs, it is true that the only good that I can recognize is relative to my nature.

Professor Field, of course, might reply to this account of need somewhat as follows. ‘Can not you see that the concept of need involves consciousness just as inevitably as the concept of desire? The only reason for saying that a man has a need for a thing is the belief that the thing would, as a matter of fact, whether he desires it or not, give him satisfaction. If, having got the thing, he did not after all experience any satisfaction, we should have to admit that after all this was not what he needed.61 Even on your own showing the fulfilment of a tendency is only good in so far as the tendency and the fulfilment are cognized, or capable of being cognized. Thus it is not fulfilment that is good, even on your theory, but the fulfilment of felt needs.’

Though this account is plausible, I believe it to be mistaken. Any account of ‘good’ in terms of the satisfaction of desire reduces in the last resort to hedonism. For this insistence on consciousness and on satisfaction is essentially an insistence on felt satisfaction. It is implied that the feeling of satisfaction is the essence of ‘good’. Professor Field does not, indeed, explicitly derive ‘good’ from pleasure. Indeed he would probably deny such a derivation. Yet this is the implication of his theory. The important point is that pleasure, or the feeling of satisfaction, is not the ratio essendi of a need; it is only a ratio cognoscendi. At any rate it is just as plausible to say that we are pleased when the fulfilment of a need is cognized, as it is to say that we have a need for a thing when it is a fact that the thing would give us pleasure. Pleasure is essentially ‘feeling satisfied’; and satisfaction pre-supposes some need which is, or seems to be, fulfilled. A need, then, is essentially an unfulfilled tendency of some object within the agent’s mental horizon. That object may be either his own body with its purely physiological needs, or ‘himself’ as a person cognized as one individual among others, or some other person, or a group. And perhaps there are other kinds of active objects which may appeal to his active capacity.

D. Ethical Compromise Between Moore and Field

This psychological account of conation must be greatly expanded in subsequent chapters. But as it stands it is, I suggest, enough to indicate how we may accept and unify the essentials of the ethical views of Professor Moore and Professor Field. Good, we must hold, is relative not to desire but to need. And need turns out to be, not something rooted in our nature as conative subjects, but something rooted in the nature of the objective field which we cognize. By good we mean, in the last resort and essentially, fulfilment of some objective tendency or other. Every such fulfilment, simply as such and in isolation from other events, is a case of intrinsic goodness.

Here Professor Moore might of course point out that, since many things which are needed are not called good, and many things which are called good are not needed, we ought not to identify good with needed. But this only amounts to saying that, in the first place, many things which are needed may, when regarded in a wider context, be seen to conflict with more important needs; while, in the second place, there are many things which would as a matter of fact fulfil needs, though no one recognizes that this is the case.

It is true also that some things which are judged good are not definitely regarded as fulfilling a need. But this only means that, though they are in fact apprehended as fulfilments, it is very difficult to describe just what the need is which they fulfil. Thus a great work of art is judged good, and its goodness consists in a complex of fulfilments; but who can clearly describe the needs that it fulfils? At a later stage I shall discuss aesthetic experience from this point of view.

That quality, then, which in ethical contexts we call ‘goodness’, and in aesthetic contexts we call ‘beauty’, is after all the very same quality as that which, in other contexts we call ‘fulfilment’. This quality itself is unanalysable; and in Professor Moore’s sense it is indefinable. But it is a quality that occurs in certain definable relations in some of which an ethical aspect is easily recognizable, in some of which it is not.

The question may be raised as to whether we are entitled to speak of fulfilment as a quality at all. I think we are, for the following reasons. By ‘fulfilment’ we mean something pertaining to a certain kind of situation, namely that in which some object, tending to act in a certain manner, does so act. It is certainly in virtue of a common character that we call all such situations cases of fulfilment. Now this character we seem to know most intimately in the fulfilment of our own organic tendencies. For instance, in a successful sneeze we have a very definite acquaintance with fulfilment; we cognize a certain unanalysable quality which is the essential quality common to all fulfilment situations. We may say that we have a ‘feeling of release’; but this quality is not merely the quality of a feeling. It is the quality of an objective situation. What we feel is a real release, not a ‘feeling’ which we ‘project’ into the physical body. And this quality, the quality of fulfilment of potency, is identical with that which we encounter in other cases of fulfilment and by other modes of cognition. Whether we know it by acquaintance, as in the sneeze, or by report, it is the same quality. For instance, it is the quality known when we learn of the triumph of any cause which we have embraced, or the victory of any thing or person or society to which we have rendered allegiance. And, being essentially the quality of fulfilment, it must be supposed to occur in every case of fulfilment, whether we recognize it as such or not. Often, however, we ignore it or deny it just because the fulfilment in question conflicts with others to which we are loyal.

But, granted that fulfilment is indeed a quality, we have still to face the criticism that, after all, what is good is not every kind of fulfilment, but only the fulfilment of those tendencies that are cognized and conated as needs. Against this view, which will concern us more closely in the next chapter, we must meanwhile insist that in practice this is not what we mean when we call anything good. We mean neither that the conation of it is good, nor that it is good because, or in that, it is conated. We mean simply that it is good, that it, as Professor Moore would say, has a certain quality. But, when we examine closely the nature of our meaning, we find that the quality called ‘goodness’ is the quality of fulfilment. The good thing is either an isolated case of fulfilment, and therefore of intrinsic goodness, or it is a means to fulfilment. And if, taking all things into account, we deliberately assert that it is good absolutely, or universally, what we mean is that it is itself a member in the ideal, an element in the greatest possible fulfilment of the universe.

44 G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 6 ff.

45 Ibid., p. 60.

46 G. C. Field, Moral Theory, p. 53

47 Ibid., p. 56.

48 Ibid., p. 47.

49 Ibid., p. 107.

50 Ibid., p. 133.

51 Ibid., p. 181.

52 Ibid., p. 136.

53 Ibid., p. 49.

54 Principia Ethica, p. 141

55 Ibid., p. 15.

56 Moral Theory, p. 54.

57 Mr. R. B. Braithwaite, in his interesting criticism of Prof. Moore read before the Aristotelian Society, in March I928, uses an argument which is curiously complementary to the foregoing argument. If I understand him, his contention is that Prof. Moore’s central argument is false because he ignores the ambiguity of the word ‘good’. The statement that pleasure is good, says Prof. Moore, can be confuted merely by pointing out the possibility of asking whether after all pleasure is good. To this Mr. Braithwaite replies that in the original statement ‘good’ is intended to mean a relation to one’s own feeling, while in the subsequent question it means an objective predicate. The upshot of Mr. Braithwaite s argument is that Prof. Moore’s famous question is destructive merely of the contention that ‘good always means pleasure’, not of the contention that it sometimes means pleasure. Thus Mr. Braithwaite’s argument rests on the possibility that though a person might know the meaning of every sentence containing the word ‘good’, yet he might not recognize that the word had not always the same meaning. On the other hand the argument which I have given above, while not denying that ‘good’ is ambiguous, recognizes that one sense of the word is all-important in ethics. It goes on, however, to suggest that though Prof. Moore uses the word strictly in that sense, he fails to recognize that the objective character thus signified may turn out to be identical with the objective character signified by some other word, or words, in certain other contexts which are not regarded as ethical.

58 Moral Theory, p. 136.

59 Ibid., p. 181.

60 Throughout this book I use the word 'object' in the epistemological sense. Whatever is, or might be, objective to the cognitive and conative subject is an object. I never use the word as equivalent to ‘goal’ or ‘end’ or ‘aim’.

61 Cf. for instance Moral Theory, p. 126.

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