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THE BASIS OF RIGHT AND WRONG
HISTORICAL knowledge without critical insight leads to moral nihilism, the conviction of the pre-Socratic Sophists that, since every time and people has its own standards, there is no real objective right and wrong. Morality is seen to be not a fixed code sent readymade from heaven, but a set of habits and intuitions that have had a natural origin and development. Our particular moral code is perceived to be but one out of many, our type of conscience psychologically on the same level with the strange, and to us perverted, sense of duty of alien races. How can we judge impartially between our standards and those of the Fiji Islanders? What warrant have we for saying that our code is a better one than theirs? Or how do we know that the whole thing is not superstition?
What is the nature of that intrinsic goodness upon which
ultimately all valuations rest? As a matter of fact, underneath the manifold disagreements as to good and bad, there is a deep stratum of absolute certainty. It is only in the more complex and delicate matters that doubt arises; all men share in those elementary perceptions of good and bad that make up the bulk of human valuation. To men everywhere it is an evil to be in severe physical pain or to be maimed in body, to be shut away from air, from food, from other people. It is a good to taste an appetizing dish, to exercise when well and rested, to hear harmonious music, to feel the sweet emotion of love. The fact that men agree upon judgments does not prove them true; but these are not judgments, they are percep
tions. To call love good is not to give an opinion, it is to describe a fact. It is a matter of direct first-hand feeling, whose reality consists in its being felt. To say that these experiences are good or bad is equivalent to saying that they
feel good or bad; there can be no dispute about it. - This is the bottom fact of ethics. Different experiences
have different intrinsic worth as they pass. There is a chiaroscuro of consciousness, a light and shade of immediate goodness and badness over all our variegated moments. The good moments are their own excuse for being, a part of the brightness and worth of life. They need nothing ulterior to justify them. The bad moments feel bad, and that is the end of it; they are bad-feeling moments, and no sophistication can deny it. Conscious life looked at from this point of view, and abstracted from all its other aspects, is a flux of plus and minus values. Certain of its moments have a greater felt worth than others; some experiences are intrinsically undesirable, the shadows of life; others, intrinsically sweet, a part of its sunshine. In the last analysis, all differences in value, including all moral distinctions, rest upon this disparity in the immediate worth of conscious states."
We may say absolutely that if it were not for this funda
1 Or affections. Let no one quarrel about the psychological terms used; the only important matter is to note the fact, however it be phrased, that
good" and "bad" in their basic usage are descriptive terms. A toothache is bad just as indisputably as the sky is blue. The word "bad" has a definite meaning, just as the word “blue” has; and the toothache is, among other things, precisely what we mean by “bad,” just as the look of the cloudless sky by daylight is what we mean by “blue.”
2 Cf. G. Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, p. 104: “All worth leads us back to actual feeling somewhere, or else evaporates into nothing - into a word and a superstition.'
I cannot but feel that contemporary definitions of value that omit reference to hedonic differences e.g., that of Professor Brown (Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, vol. 11, p. 32): “Value is degree of adequacy of a potentiality to the realization of the effect by virtue of which it is a potentiality” — miss the real meaning of “value.” We do, indeed, speak occasionally of x as having value as a means to y, when y is pot good or a means to a good. But that seems to me a misuse of the word.
mental difference in feeling there would be no such thing as morality. There might conceivably be a world in which consciousness should exist without any agreeable or disagreeable qualities; in such a world nothing would matter; all acts would be equally indifferent. Or there might be a world in which all experiences were equally pleasurable or painful; in such a case all acts would be equally good or equally sad; there would be no ground for choice. One might in any of these hypothetical worlds be driven by mechanical impulse or fitful whim to do this or that, but there would be no rational basis for preference. Such, however, is not the case. Comparative valuation is possible; all secondary goods and evils arise, all morality, all art and religion and science have their wellspring in this brute fact, this primordial parting of the ways between the more and the less desirable phases of possible conscious life.
Morality of an elementary type would exist on this level even without the further complications of actual life. At least a very important art would arise; whether or not we should call it morality is a mere matter of definition. For a choice between alternative immediately felt goods would arise, and the problem of how to get the better kinds of experience and avoid the worse would demand solution. Every bit of plus value added to experience would make the world so much the brighter, as would every bit of pain avoided.
There are, to be sure, the mystical optimisms and pessimisms to be reckoned with, the sweeping assertions of certain schools and individuals that everything is equally good or equally bad. Such undiscriminating formulas are either the mere objectification of a mood, of some unusual period of ecstasy or sorrow, a blind outcry of thanksgiving or of bitterness, or they are the clumsy expression of some practical truth, as, the wisdom of acquiescence, and the futility of preoccupation with evil. But taken seriously and liter
ally such statements are simply untrue to the facts and blur our fundamental perceptions. If actually accredited, either would lead to quiescence; if everything were equally good or evil all striving would be meaningless, one might as well jump from a housetop or walk into the fire. But as a matter of fact such mystical assertions are indulged in only in the inactive moments of life, and mean no more than a lyric poem or a burst of music. Every one in his practical moments acknowledges tacitly, at least, the difference between the intrinsic goodness and badness of experiences. A life of even delight or even wretchedness, or of colorless indifference, is not inconceivable, but it is not the lot of any actual human beings.
The larger quarrel between optimists and pessimists need not, for our purposes, be settled. Life may be a very good thing, on the whole, or a very bad thing. The only point we need to note is that it is at any rate a varying thing. Some experiences are more worth having than others. Moral theory needs no further admission to find its foothold. Nor do we need to discuss the problem of evil. It may be that all pain has its ultimate uses, that nothing is “really” bad, if we take that to mean that all evil has a necessary existence as a means to a good otherwise unattainable and worth the cost. But however useful as a means evil may be, it is none the less evil and regrettable. It is not good qua pain. If the same amount of good could be obtained without the preliminary evil, it were better to skip it. In short, the existence of different values in immediate experience is indisputable; we may call them for convenience intrinsic goodness and badness.
What is extrinsic goodness?
But there is a radically different sense of the words "good" and "bad"; namely, that in which we say that a thing is good for this or that. This is the kind of goodness