A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 3

Criticism of the Self-Fulfilment Theory

A. Emotive Aspects of the Theory

WHETHER or not the ethical theory offered by Bradley is true, it is in many ways comforting. We are attracted by the hope that, in denying our private cravings for the sake of the good, we do after all in some sense save our souls. Sometimes, indeed, the conviction that only thus can we fulfil ourselves may incline us to righteousness when otherwise we should have erred. We are flattered, moreover, in being told that each of us is potentially the self of the universe. Just so was the private soldier pleased to think of the field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack. For we all crave to be at heart larger and more important than we seem in our everyday clothes. We long to leave our pettiness behind, and become self-consistent and all-embracing. Thus, perhaps unfairly, does our egoism interpret this system of ethics to its own advantage.

On the other hand, we also want to be assured that goodness is something more than the gratification of desire. We want to believe that the distinction between good and evil is objective and universal, and that in keeping the moral law, or striving for the ethical end, we are not merely ‘pleasing ourselves’. We want, moreover, to be able to issue moral commands to others and feel that, when we do so, the universe is backing us. For we are all at heart addicted to moralism. It is, therefore, cheering to be told that goodness derives, not from the pleasant tone of mental states, not from the nature of the process of consciousness, but from the nature of the content of consciousness, from that of which we are conscious. It would be ridiculous to suppose that idealist ethics makes its appeal solely through its gratification of these common cravings, or that the great idealist philosophers unconsciously deceived themselves into thinking that their theory was rational when it was merely pleasing. Nevertheless, this emotive aspect of the theory should make us doubly cautious in estimating its intellectual value.

B. The Individual and Society

Now emphasis on the content rather than the process of consciousness is the real achievement of idealist ethics. It is in virtue of this that it so strikingly outstrips hedonism. But the full implications of this new emphasis have not, perhaps, been rigorously accepted. The theory of the real and good will is supposed to do justice both to the fact that moral conduct is essentially determined by the agent’s own moral nature (not by an external authority), and to the fact that moral conduct is determined in relation to an objective order. But in truth, by an unfortunate false stress upon ‘self-fulfilment’, it has failed to do justice to the objectivity of obligation, or at least has failed to grasp its full implications. In spite of all assertions to the contrary, it shows morality as essentially the egoistic business of saving one’s soul rather than as the world’s invasion of the experient. Or, at least, owing to the form in which the theory is expressed, it is always liable to this interpretation. My aim is not simply to prove the theory false; for it may reasonably be regarded as true, under suitable interpretation. But it is all too easily misunderstood. And this is due to the fact that its exponents have, almost in spite of themselves, stated it in terms of the experient rather than in terms of that which is experienced. Hence springs its unfortunate taint of egoism. Moreover, as I shall presently argue, in so far as the theory is true, it fails to solve the problem of obligation, and in so far as it claims to account for obligation it is false.

Idealist philosophers would, no doubt, vigorously deny this charge that their ethical system is tainted with egoism. They would insist that they regarded the individual as a mere abstraction from his society, and ultimately from the Absolute. But in this reply they fail to meet the point. For in their theory the individual’s obligation is derived from his actual disposition to seek harmony. Only because his real will is for harmonious fulfilment ought he to seek it. Moreover, it may well be argued that in reducing the individual to a mere aspect of society Idealists have-erred; for, though surely society fashioned him, he is now what he is, and no mere appearance of society. And though in the last analysis he might turn out to be in some sense an expression of the Absolute, he is just that one expression which he is, and not the others which he is not. The distinction between him and the Whole is vital from his point of view. Though conceivably he may be in some sense contained in the Absolute, the Absolute itself is not wholly contained in him, nor is the universal will in any strict sense involved in his actual will. And in the present connexion the charge is that, in deriving moral obligation from the individual’s will to be fulfilled, Idealist philosophers derive it from something which is not even implicitly identical with the world’s need to be fulfilled.

Moreover, in the reduction of the individual to a mere mode of society there is, of course, a great practical danger. For the consequent moral precept that we should try to fulfil’ our station and its duties’ is but a half-truth, and may, as has often been pointed out, lead to an excessive reverence for the established order and culture, and an excessive distrust of adventure in morals and politics. Had men clung strictly to this ideal, blood sacrifice, slavery, and a thousand other barbarous customs would never have been criticized, and indeed the religion of love would never have been preached. Doubtless, it is the momentum of society’s culture that forces the more backward individuals up to a certain level, and prevents the unbalanced from a too rampant eccentricity. But clearly whatever advances have occurred were initiated by critical and daring individuals.

There is, of course, another serious danger in this over-emphasis of society. Not only does it lead to a disparagement of the individual’s contribution to the life of society, but also it suggests that society should be the end of all activity, and that the individual is of no account save as the instrument of society. Thus the members of society come to be regarded as members of an orchestra, and organized social life as the symphony which controls, even while it is created by, their cooperative activity. It is this symphony, this form of social mentality, which justifies their existence as mere particular mental processes. In a land, however, that has been scared by ‘Prussianism’ there is, perhaps, no need to dwell on the danger of this glorification of the state.

It is instructive to note how orthodox ethics deals with those activities which, though deemed desirable, cannot be plausibly said to owe their value primarily to their contribution to social life. Science, art, and philosophy, we are told, are valuable because they are modes of self-fulfilment. For the good is primarily self-fulfilment. All that contributes to the fulfilment of the individual is good; but better is that which contributes to the fulfilment of the social self; and this in turn is but an approximation to the universal self, which is the end (and source) of all. Thus, though these activities are not to be justified merely as being processes having social utility, their justification is none the less indirectly social. For they are means for the enrichment of the individual, and the individual is to be enriched that society may be enriched.

Now this reduction of science, art, and philosophy to modes of self-fulfilment is only less artificial than their direct reduction to modes of social advancement. It is true, of course, that they are modes of self-fulfilment, just as it is true that incidentally they make for social advancement and harmony. But they are not necessarily practised because they are modes of self-fulfilment, nor is their value experienced as consisting therein. The scientist or philosopher who should pursue his inquiry merely to enlarge his mind might well be said to lack the true scientific or philosophical spirit. Even he who should make his aim the advancement of human culture would have missed the mark. He, perhaps, comes nearer to the true spirit who feels obscurely just that the world ought to be known and understood, that the universe itself cries out in him for this completion, and that he and all mankind are justified in these pursuits, not primarily because these activities fulfil man, but because, in some slight degree, they fulfil the universe. The artist also seems to be most true to his calling when he feels that he, and all mankind, owes, in some sense, loyalty to the aesthetic objects, even if they are objects which happen to be created by his own mental activity.

Perhaps this is mere superstition. At a later stage I shall venture on a more detailed but highly speculative inquiry into this suggestion. But, meanwhile, whether it can be rendered intelligible or must finally be abandoned as an unjustified projection of our own cravings, the actual experience of the value of scientific, artistic, and philosophical activities certainly has this flavour of objectivity; and, consequently, we cannot but suspect that this kind of value is not fully explained by the self-fulfilment theory.

Many who hold the ethical theory under discussion would agree with the view that the universe itself demands completion in us in worshipful contemplation. But they would also insist that this claim only applies to us because in worshipful contemplation we fulfil ourselves, or begin to fulfil ourselves. This is surely perverse. It may be true that we fulfil ourselves in this activity, which may be called worship; but we ought not, and indeed we cannot, worship in order to fulfil ourselves. If worship fulfils us, it does so as being the attitude demanded in us by an intrinsic value. That value is not to be judged worshipful merely for the very reason that the worship of it fulfils us.

C. The Ambiguity of ‘Self’

It is true that primarily what we call good is the fulfilment of needs felt as our own needs, felt as needs within our own content. But we do not mean that this fulfilment is good because it falls within our experience, or because it is an element in the fulfilment of a certain experienced system. In this sense, then, the fulfilment is good, not because it is self-fulfilment, but just in being fulfilment at all. Similarly with regard to universal self-fulfilment, it is true that the good, the ideal, can only be rightly asserted by one who takes all things into account. It must, that is, be judged good in relation to the content of the hypothetical universal mind. But this does not mean that it is the good because it would be so judged by the universal mind, or because it would be felt to fulfil the need of the universal self. It is the good not because it is universal self-fulfilment, but just because it is universal fulfilment.

If ‘self’ be taken to mean the whole real of which any mind’s content is a distorted appearance, then indeed what we mean by good is the fulfilment of that real, and is ‘self- fulfilment’. Or rather by ‘good’ we mean the fulfilment of any tendency or capacity of that real, and by ‘the ideal’ we mean the greatest possible fulfilment of the real whole, of which a mind’s content is a distorted appearance. But if this is what is meant, it is confusing to use the word ‘self’ at all; goodness is simply fulfilment, and the ideal is universal fulfilment. Of course, it is true in a sense that every good is a case of the’ self-fulfilment’ of something or other; and that the ideal must be the fulfilment of the universe ‘itself’, and is therefore universal self-fulfilment. But such contentions are pointless. The only significant meaning of ‘self’ involves experience; and self-fulfilment must mean the experienced fulfilment of all needs that are members of a certain system of experienced needs. We all do will self-fulfilment in this sense. We all do will to experience complete and harmonious fulfilment. But this is not what we mean by the good.

The phrase ‘self-fulfilment’ is essential to idealist ethics; for it is used to bridge the gulf between the real will and the actual will. Each, we are told, is an expression of the will for self-fulfilment; but the one achieves, and the other misses, the goal. Immoral behaviour, we are told, is immoral precisely in that it misses the goal which it itself is really seeking. The phrase ‘self-fulfilment’ is used in quite different senses in these two connexions. In moral behaviour the ‘self-fulfilment’ sought is the fulfilment of the real, of which the mental content is a distorted fragment; but in immoral behaviour what is sought is not the fulfilment of the real, even so far as it is known, but the fulfilment of that system of felt needs which happen at the moment to constitute the private self within the whole mental content. The intrusion of other needs is resisted just because they are not felt as members of the self, just because their fulfilment would not fulfil the self as it is actually felt to be, but would thwart it.

If this be so, it is not enough to say merely that the two kinds of conduct are expressions of the identical will for self-fulfilment, though the one seeks to fulfil a smaller, and the other a greater, self. Such a statement is true, and even important; but by itself it is grossly misleading. What is important is not the identity, but the difference, of the greater and lesser self. And no theory which slurs this difference can even state, let alone solve, the problem of obligation. The vital question is this: how comes it that a greater ‘self ‘,whose fulfilment is not actually willed, exercises authority over the subject which actually wills only a lesser and incompatible ‘self’? The answer is said to be that after all they are one and the same ‘self’. But the point is that, whatever the truth be about them, the subject does not experience them both equally as ‘self’, The one course is experienced as promising self-fulfilment, and the other as promising self-negation, to the self as it is actually felt to be. Is the key to the problem that, while in moral conduct what is willed is the fulfilment of the objective real, in immoral conduct what is willed is merely an illusory experience of fulfilment? No, for though this will for mere pleasurable experience is doubtless often a cause of immoral conduct, the issue is not strictly between objectivity and subjectivity. The essence of immorality is that in immoral conduct the fulfilment of part of the objective field is willed to the exclusion of the rest, while in moral conduct the will is for the fulfilment of the whole; and not merely the whole content, but for the real whole of which any individual’s content is but an erroneous appearance.

The obvious objection may be made that a man cannot will the fulfilment of his total objective field unless he himself, the desiring subject, needs the fulfilment of his total objective field, and that thus moral conduct reduces once more to the will for subjective fulfilment. But this objection is trivial. Of course, a man cannot will the fulfilment of his total objective field unless he needs its fulfilment; but this is only to say that he cannot will it unless he does will it. We must not first distinguish between him and the objective field, and then try to explain his will to fulfil the objective field by means of a ‘something in him’ which makes him will it. Rightly we distinguish between him as a bare experient and the object that he experiences; but his needs, one and all, even his bodily needs and his private ‘mental’ needs, are objective needs rightly or wrongly cognized by him. For instance it is an objective fact, cognizable by him and by others, that he, considered as an organism, tends to self- maintenance, whether he, considered as an experient, desires self-maintenance or not.11

I said that his needs were one and all needs of the objective field cognized truly or falsely by him. In a manner it would have been better to say that his needs were all but one needs of the objective field. For one need he has which is strictly subjective, and not primarily a need of that which is object to him. This is the need that arises from his own nature as an experient, as a bare centre of cognition and conation. As an experient he needs to experience free activity, or fulfilment of felt objective needs, and to shun hindrance of felt objective needs. The objective needs themselves, whose fulfilment he as subject needs to experience, are simply the tendencies and capacities of the world which he cognizes, including his own organism’s established ‘behaviour-set’. But he, as a process of conscious subjective activity, needs to experience the fulfilment of objective needs. He needs, in fact, to maintain and fulfil himself as a harmonious system of psychic activity. He craves for its own sake successful conation and consequent pleasure (which is felt fulfilment); and shuns for its own sake unsuccessful conation and consequent pain (which is felt hindrance). This one need, then, emerges directly from his own subjectivity, and not from the nature of that which is object to him.

But this need to experience fulfilment is not to be thought of as the source of all his activity; rather it is a consequence of the fact that objective needs awaken in him the capacity for conation and affection. Still less is ‘good’ to be logically derived solely from this subjective need. Idealist ethics, however, in spite of all efforts to the contrary, seems after all to derive moral behaviour from this will to experience fulfilment. The will for self-fulfilment, in fact, is an attribute of subjectivity. That is to say, moral behaviour is derived in the last resort, not from the actual will’s objective aspect (and so from the real will), but from its subjective aspect, which reduces to desire. The starting-point of the whole theory is that every individual consciously desires fulfilment for himself. He desires that whatever needs he experiences as needs shall also be experienced as fulfilled. In fact, his aim is essentially to be a freely and harmoniously active experient. The theory admits, indeed, that the self which in moral behaviour is fulfilled is the objective mental content. But it implies that this desire to fulfil the needs that arise within the content of the self is the expression of a fundamental ‘will for self-fulfilment’ which inheres in the nature of every experient. Now the word ‘will’ here is ambiguous. The theory uses it generally to mean the objective demands of the mental content. But if ‘the will for self-fulfilment’ is to be used as the logical ground of obligation, it must have a subjective significance; it must mean the subjective activity of desiring. Were it not for this will for an experienced harmonious free activity or fulfilment, we should not (it is said) will the fulfilment of objective needs. We will objective fulfilment because of the nature of our own subjectivity, which seeks the experience of fulfilment. We cannot fully attain this experience of harmonious fulfilment save by harmoniously fulfilling whatever needs are felt within our mental content. And since our content is an abstraction from the whole real, we can only attain self-fulfilment by willing universally. Therefore it is, according to the theory, that we all ‘really will’ the universal good.

The criticism which I am attempting to make against idealist ethics may perhaps be clarified as follows. We must distinguish, not merely between mental process and mental content, but also between the real world as it in fact is, and that fragmentary and illusory excerpt from it which is the individual’s content. Idealists rightly insist that content is in principle continuous with, nay identical with, reality itself, though it is but an abstract factor in the total real. But by using the phrase ‘mental content’ they obscure the stark objectivity of this ‘content’. While insisting that it is objective, they insist also that it is ‘the self’, and import into it a certain character of subjectivity, namely, they tend to regard the conative process as an activity of the content itself, rather than an activity of a subject (or if it be preferred an organism) in relation with an external world. Thus by the use of the concept f mental content’ they are able to offer a solution, but only an illusory solution, of the dilemma of ethics. Moral conduct, they say, accepts a principle which emerges from the nature of content, and is therefore objective, and derived from the real world. On the other hand moral conduct, they say, merely fulfils the real will of the agent himself. It is implied in the nature of content as something mental, as consisting in a system of felt needs, as expressing itself in conative activities. Thus moral conduct is an expression of the need to experience harmonious fulfilment, which emerges from the nature of subjectivity itself.

But this is to have your cake and eat it. Either what is good is essentially the fulfilment of the capacity of the ontologically objective, or real, world, and therefore ‘of content’ merely because content is an aspect of the real world; but in this case obligation cannot be derived from the process of willing self-fulfilment, which is essentially the expression of the agent’s own subjectivity. Or what is good intrinsically is the fulfilment of the agent’s subjective activity, and therefore of content only in virtue of its relation to that activity, and not in virtue of its identity with the ontologically objective real world; .but in this case obligation cannot be derived from the nature of the real world. But if obligation is not derived from the real world, it is illusory. Even if it were true (and later I shall argue that it is not) that good ‘emerges’ at the level of consciousness, we should still need to insist that the moral agent’s obligation toward other conscious individuals cannot be simply derived from his own will for self-fulfilment. It must be derived from that which is objective to him epistemologically, and in the last resort from that which is ontologically objective. If it is the world that imposes obligation on the individual, obligation cannot be derived from the will to self-fulfilment. If, on the other hand, obligation is derived from the will to self-fulfilment, it is not imposed by the real world, and is not in strictness obligation at all.

If the ‘will for self-fulfilment’ were strictly and simply the activity of the mental content, i.e. of part of the real world, then it might be true that the ‘will for self-fulfilment’ implied the will for world-fulfilment. If this were the case, however, ‘immoral’ conduct would not occur; for why should the content ever act so as to achieve less than complete fulfilment of itself? The essence of immoral conduct is that it is activity on the part of something other than the mental content, which takes into account part of the content but not the whole. In fact, the will for self-fulfilment is not strictly and simply the activity of the mental content. It is the activity of the subject, or the organism, in relation to a mental content or cognized environment. And in this the will for world-fulfilment is not implied. Hence the whole problem of obligation. The source of all the trouble is clearly revealed in Bosanquet’s account of the will as 'the conception of a system of ideas working themselves out into a connected whole'.12 This description follows on his analogy of the will and ideo-motor action, which gives rise to the contention that ideas ‘work themselves out’. If this is so, and if ideas are in principle identical with objective reality, will is the activity of objective reality in us. And immoral conduct is a failure on the part of objective reality to work itself out fully in us. But the analogy with so-called ideo-motor action is false. Nor can it do justice to’ the experience of moral obligation. In a sense, indeed, it is true that reality works itself out in our wills; but it does so through the subjective activity of an organism, not automatically.

D. Implicates of the Actual Will

Waiving for the moment this general problem of the nature of conation, we will now inquire more closely into the psychological theory that in our actual wills there is, as a matter of fact, implied a ‘real will’ for self-fulfilment as the universal self. It is essential for the theory to establish this as true, for it is said to be the logical ground of moral obligation. It is said that we are under moral obligation just because our real will is in every case the will for the universal good.

In the first place, then, does the theory of the real will describe an actual state of affairs (as it claims to do) or only an ideal?13 It is certainly true in an important sense that a man's permanent will is something other than his desire at anyone moment. But this permanent will of the man is not the ‘real’ will of idealist theory; it is only the ‘actual’ will. The man’s passing desire, or whim, may often conflict with his permanent will; sometimes the one, and sometimes the other, may control his behaviour. An artist may sacrifice his work to drink; yet it may be true that in a sense his will is for art. But in this sense he can only be said actually to will his art if on the whole and in the long run he does will it, does actually desire it. Though on most occasions he may choose drink rather than art, yet, if his will is for art, he must even on these occasions admit that he is sacrificing the greater to the less good, that he is giving way to a momentary temptation. Or, perhaps, on every such occasion he may say to himself, ‘On other occasions, art; but this time, drink.’ If his devotion to art did not rise even to this height, we should not say that his will was for art rather than drink. Otherwise, we might as well say that, if on any occasion a man delights in colour and form, his will is to be an artist, whether he ever desires to be an artist or not. And if he has ever liked boating we should say his will was to be a sailor. And if ever he showed a spiteful disposition we should have to say that his will was hate. A man’s will, then, is something more than his passing desires; but it is not wholly independent of his desires. It is based on a generalization of all his desires; but it is only his will if he himself actually conceives an enduring desire in accord with this generalization.

Will, in this sense, is obviously not the ‘real’ will but only at best the ‘actual’ will of idealist theory. Then what of the ‘real’ will? It is certainly true that in a man’s ‘actual’ will something else which may perhaps never be desired by the man, is in some sense ‘implied’; and of course this implicate of the ‘actual’ will may be called the ‘real’ will. Thus if a man’s actual will is to be an artist, it is ‘implied’ in that actual will that his ‘real’ will is to become not merely a dabbler, but a sincere, sensitive, and skilled creative artist, and to undertake whatever experiences and activities are needed to school him for this end. And this is implied although, so far is he from desiring this consummation, that he does not even know what kind of experiences and activities are thus ‘implied’ in his first naive interest in art. But to say that his ‘real will’ includes all this is at least to court misunderstanding. For this is not in any ordinary sense his will at all. All that we can say without ambiguity is that the ideal for his will is that he should, little by little, come to will all this; or that as a matter of fact only thus can he achieve fully the kind of activity which in his early stage he conceived and willed only in a very crude or partial manner.

If this argument is correct, it follows also that we are not entitled to say that a man’s real will is social, or for that which is good in the universal view, unless, however much he succumbs to temptation, he does actually will ‘the good of society’, or the universal good. Further, this can only be said to be his actual will if, when he is not subverted by temptation, he experiences an actual enduring desire that society should thrive; and at all times he must at least judge ‘the good of society’ or the universal good to be good. He must actually feel in his ‘heart of hearts’ that to will hurt to society or to the ideal is to thwart his own permanent will. But, alas, it is very far from certain that only those whom we call ‘mentally defective’ are defective in this respect.

These objections, it will be said, are beside the mark. For, according to the view that we are considering, a man’s ‘real will’ is not just the resultant of his actual desires, or the will that he wills on the whole and in the long run. It is the logical implicate of his mental content, whether or not he ever actually desires what is thus involved in all his desires. In desiring anything he embarks upon an enterprise which must be incoherent and self-contradictory unless it can be expanded into willing that which is good in the universal view. What he craves at every stage, and on every occasion, is something which cannot be attained save in the fulfilment of the ideal. Thus it is that the good will is ‘implied’ in his actual will, and is his real will.

In what sense is this view justified? Taking it in one sense, we must, I think, seriously doubt whether the logical implicate of every person’s actual will is the will for one and the same thing, namely, for that which is good in the universal view. It is certainly true that some actual desires would have to be, not merely transformed, but utterly rooted out for the sake of a good which is absolutely incompatible with their essence. For instance, it would seem that the desire to take one’s sport in the suffering of others ought to be both resisted and destroyed. May there not, indeed, be whole systems of desires, and even (just possibly), whole personalities, whole actual wills, which should be condemned as ruled by impulses essentially opposed to the good? Is it not possible that there are some of us who, perhaps owing to an adverse environment, have so developed that their actual wills do not in any sense logically imply the good will? Perhaps they were not born damned, but their environment has damned them; so that it is a travesty to say that, willing what they do will, the universal good is still the logical implicate of their actual wills. Such persons, it would seem, can only become even potential willers of the good by being first stripped clean of those dominant desires which express their actual wills, and reduced once more to that featureless undirected capacity to will something or other, that bare principle of conativity, which in them was hopelessly misdirected by their inheritance or their environment. And, as I have already suggested, this bare subjective capacity is no sufficient ground for the obligation to achieve objective fulfilment.

Perhaps none of us are so utterly lost as this. Perhaps in all of us our actual wills, in order to accord with the good will, need not to be destroyed, but only developed. Yet, even so, it is misleading to say that the good will is implied in our actual wills. Every desire, doubtless, originates in a desire for some intrinsic good; but if that good is sought to the detriment of greater goods, the original desire for a good has given birth to a desire for a positive evil. Though the desire for an evil thing is doubtless caused by a desire for some good thing, once it has come into being as a desire for an evil, there it is. And in no significant sense is the will for the universal good implied in a desire for a positive evil. A person’s evil desires are just as integral parts of him as are his good desires. And, as we have noted, there may be cases in which the evil desires preponderate, and express the whole will.

It may indeed be true that as a matter of fact no self can conceivably attain complete harmonious fulfilment save by embracing within itself the whole universe, and willing the fulfilment of universal needs. In fact, perhaps there is no way of enjoying true self-fulfilment short of being fulfilled as the Universal self, or short of achieving the Ideal. But we should not say that therefore the will for the good is implied in the actual will of each individual. It does not follow that, because the only possible way to fulfil any self is by achieving the universal good, therefore this actual self could be fulfilled in this way. For this actual self is what it is, and not something else that it might be. And perhaps it simply cannot be fulfilled at all. Maybe that, with its actual will, which constitutes what it is, the only possible kind of fulfilment is a precarious illusory sense of fulfilment which can only be preserved in blindness to the world.

E. Implicates of the Nature of Selfhood

It may be protested that this whole discussion misses the mark. For, it may be said, however depraved a self may be, it is still a self; and it is in the very nature of selfhood that the good will is implied. Whatever is a self at all is something that seeks fulfilment; and fulfilment for it simply consists in becoming the universal self. A self which embraces only a narrow content and rejects universal values is yet truly a self, in that it embraces some content and some values. Being of this nature, whatever its actual content and values, it necessarily wills ‘really’ the only possible fulfilment of selfhood, namely, the logically completed self whose content were the universe and its values universal values. Anything less than such a universal self is inherently self-contradictory. Its content is a mere ragged abstraction from the whole of things; and its values are, so to speak, nursery approximations to the only values which are coherent and final. This is the sense in which, even in the ‘lost soul’, the good will is implied. And because this is the only possible fulfilment of selfhood, every self, no matter how distorted, is subject to moral obligation.

Now it is certainly true in a sense that the good will is implied in the very nature of selfhood; since to be a self at all is to crave harmonious fulfilment, and very likely this is, as a matter of fact, not fully attainable short of the universal good. But to say this is only to say that the ideal for selfhood is to be capable of willing the universal good. It is not to say that in any important sense the will for the universal good is actually a factor in every self. All that is a factor in every self is a will for experienced self-fulfilment; and it does not follow that every actual self would experience fulfilment in experiencing the good. In fact, it is practically certain that no actual self would do so; for every one of us, no doubt, is in some way or other positively perverted. And the perverted part of him is as much himself as the unperverted.

But if the idealist theory of obligation is to hold, it must be shown that the actual self, as it stands, does in some way will, not merely fulfilment of itself as an experienced system of needs, but fulfilment of the world. And even if this were so, we should still be left with a view of obligation which is violently opposed to the naïve moral experience. For the theory would still be maintaining that we ought because we really will. And this is opposed to the naïve moral experience, which suggests rather that we ought whatever be our real will.

The theory certainly declares, in effect, that we ought to do right just because we really will to do right. or that we ought to will what is good in the universal view just because only so can we attain self-fulfilment, and what we really will is self-fulfilment. In hedonism obligation is reduced to a form of the desire for pleasure; and in idealist ethics, in spite of appearances to the contrary, it is reduced to a form of the desire for self-fulfilment. Thus if the real and good will were not implied in our actual wills, we should not be subject to moral obligations at all. But even if it be true that the real will of each is the good will, is this itself a sufficient reason why we ought to will the good? Ought we to will the good just because at heart we do will it, because not to do so is to betray our own nature as experients; or ought we to will it simply because the end is good in itself? Ought we to seek to be the universal self simply because only so can we be our own true selves; or ought we to seek to fulfil the universe because it claims fulfilment?

Or perhaps the issue should be put thus: Is the good really good just because it alone can fulfil my nature as an experient; or is it good because it alone can fulfil the world? Does good emerge from the nature of the experient or from the nature of that which is experienced? Or again, which is the more fundamental idea, ‘I ought to do so and so,’ or ‘So and so ought to be done?’ We may imagine a world in which there were great evils (such as physical pain) and yet no beings capable of a real will for the universal good. Would it then be meaningless to say of such a world that those evils ought to. be abolished? Many philosophers would answer, yes. For in such a world, devoid of ‘moral beings’, it would not be incumbent on anyone to undertake the reform. The concept of obligation, they would say, includes the concept of a being who recognizes the obligation. And of course in some sense it does. Obligation is essentially a binding, and involves two terms. But just as a hand may be stretched out for help though there is no one to grasp it, so a claim may occur though there is no one to recognize it, or no one capable of fulfilling it. And though it is true that in such a world devoid of moral beings, there would be no one who ought to fulfil the claims, it is also true that in such a world of unfulfilled claims there ought to be some one to fulfil the claims. The point is that, whether in fact there are moral beings or not, the occurrence of a need is such that (apart from conflict with greater needs), whatever is necessary for the need’s fulfilment ought to be. Therefore moral beings ought to be. This curious nature of need we intuit when we carefully inspect our moral experience. Let us suppose that, though in our imaginary world there were moral beings, there were no physical possibility of abolishing the evils. Ought not the evils to be abolished? Surely, in the only serious sense of the word ‘ought’, they ought, although they could not be. Do we not often say that an abuse ought to be reformed but no one can do it? This suggests, and rightly I think, that ‘ought’ should be derived from goodness alone, and not from the moral agent’s capability. Some, no doubt, would argue that in such cases as the above what we really mean is that if there were moral beings, or if there were any possibility of effecting the reform, then certain persons ought to do it, and should be blamed if they do not. But this sense of ‘ought’, in which praise and blame are involved, is secondary, not primary. We must feel that an end ought to be attained before we feel that we or anyone else ought to undertake the work. And as to blame, we do blame a man for not fulfilling an obligation which he recognizes; but also we may blame him for not recognizing an obligation which, we think, ought to be recognized.

It is of course admitted in the orthodox ethical theory that the most striking thing about moral behaviour is that it is ‘self-sacrifice’, the deliberate denial of wants felt in the self. It is granted, nay insisted, that in true self-sacrifice we do indeed resist the impulses of the self, and do indeed transcend the self. But we are told that this is done in order to bring about a new and greater self. I sacrifice myself that I may be enlarged. I lose my soul, to save it. If sacrifice were not to promise salvation, it would be folly to sacrifice. This amounts to a denial that genuine self-sacrifice ever occurs. And an ethical theory that is based on self-fulfilment is forced to this denial sooner or later. Defenders of the theory would, no doubt, consider this a caricature. They would insist that the self that is sacrificed is private, and the self that is saved is universal and objective. Then why still call it the self? And anyhow what claim can this universal self have over the actual self which is other than it and definitely incompatible with it?

Psychologically, of course, it is true in a sense that even the martyr accepts martyrdom simply because of a felt discord within himself, and that in this acceptance the discord is resolved. But anything that he feels at all is bound to be felt ‘within himself’. It is a mistake to attribute his action to the need for self-fulfilment simply because it is he that feels and wills to abolish the discord. And ethically it is a mistake to derive his obligation simply from the fact that there is discord within his objective self.

Ethics, indeed, seems to suffer from an obsession with selfhood. This interest perhaps has its psychological explanation in the history of Christianity. For the achievement of Christianity might be said to be that it, stressed the strictly moral necessity of self-denial while it insisted that in losing our souls we save them. There arose in consequence a tradition in which morality appeared as essentially self-denial for the sake of salvation. In the extreme view self-denial came to be thought of even as the one and only means to salvation. Philosophers, certainly, have not fallen into this error. But they, like the rest of us, have been infected with the general obsession with self, and have come to take it for granted that moral obligation must be grounded in the need for salvation.

But is it not rather the case that morality has no essential relation either with self-increase or with self-denial, save psychologically? For moral conduct is not essentially self-increase any more than it is essentially self-destruction, whether for an ultimate increase or for the sake of something other than self. Its effect on the self is incidental. Its essence is surely self-oblivious loyalty to something judged intrinsically good. And to call this something just a greater self is to beg the question. Moral conduct is essentially loyal conduct; and loyalty is felt, primarily, not to a better part of oneself, but to something whose existence and whose value are experienced as logically prior to its acceptance or espousal in an act of conation. Doubtless morality is loyalty not to an individual or a nation or a cause, but to the universe, or to whatever is believed to be the supreme good. But the point is that such loyalty is moral by virtue of its object, not by virtue of its being experienced as demanded for self-fulfilment.

F. Summary

The foregoing criticism of idealist ethics may be summarized as follows. In spite of their distinction between desire and will, idealists base their theory of moral obligation on the ambiguity of the word ‘will’. What has to be accounted for is the individual’s experienced obligation to perform subjective acts of a certain sort, namely, those which are demanded in the objective ‘real will’. If it were true, as it is not, that the subjective act of conation were the act of the mental content, i.e. of the environment in so far as it is cognized, then the moral situation might be expressed by saying that the content succeeds or fails in expressing itself in so far as its subjective activity conforms or not to its needs. Thus in immoral choice it would be acting so as to defeat itself. But since subjectivity is not the act of content, but of an organism acting in relation to an environment, this account is false. Thus it is precisely because the idealists fail to distinguish constantly between the subjective and objective meanings of ‘will’ that they suppose themselves to have solved the problem of obligation. They say that the actual will is but an approximation to the real will; but the point is that in immoral choice the actual will gives rise to an actual desire directed toward a merely partial objective fulfilment, while the real will fails to achieve any effective desire at all. My claim is that the theory derives obligation from the nature of subjectivity; whereas the only way in which it can be explained without being explained away is by deriving it from the dynamic nature of objects, and assigning to subjectivity merely the powers of intuiting the object’s need as a moral claim, and acting in service of it. This theory will be elaborated in the course of this book.

11 The objectivity of need will be discussed in detail at a later stage.

12 The Psychology of the Moral Self, p. 80

13 In this connexion cf. Ginsberg, The Psychology of Society, Chap. V.


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