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Duty or Concrete Ethics

Updated: May 6

By Robin Collingwood

Pp 227-231 Collingwood, R. G. Speculum Mentis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924.


What is true of the proverbial caprices of fashion is a fortiori true of law and politics. The attempt of abstract thought to mutilate these historical facts appears theoretically in the attempt to construct a sociology, or science intended to reduce history to a pattern of abstract concepts, and practically in the attempt to oust the lawyer and the statesman from public life and replace them with the business man and the scientist. Thus the state, which in its historical reality is a fabric of law, is reduced to a business concern by an ‘economic interpretation of history’ which destroys the concreteness of legal fact and replaces it by the abstractions of utilitarian ethics; and we get socialism or the substitution of economics for justice, with its natural corollary, the destruction of that internal ‘king’s peace’ which the political spirit has guarded through centuries as the very flame of its domestic altar, and the declaration of a class war which is the explicit negation of the state. Similarly the family, just because it is a concrete spiritual reality whose foundation is the act of spontaneous choice in which, moved by some spirit certainly not born in the counting-house or laboratory, one man and one woman greet one another as co-parents of the world’s future; just because it is the tree on which new souls grow in a manner unpredictable to scientific calculation; just because it is these things, the family is the object of attack by eugenists who are quite sure that professors of science could mate young men and young women a great deal better than the poor ignorant things can do it for themselves, with the amateurish assistance of their friends and relations; and have the effrontery to bolster up their propaganda with facts concerning the failure of this or that marriage, arbitrarily selected to suit their purposes, as if a fanatic who wished to make gramophones compulsory by law should produce statistics showing that some people sing out of tune. For love and marriage and the procreation of children are, every time they happen, a voyage of discovery; and when scientists have discovered the logic which will infallibly produce true discoveries, it will be time enough for them to usurp that chosen province of intuition, the business of matchmaking. The same fallacy recurs in militarism, or the seizure of the state by that science of war which the state has devised to serve its own ends; commercialism, or the overthrow of law by profit and the replacement of statesmen by business men; and other ailments of the body politic, whose common nature is to deny the very essence of the state, which is concrete freedom in the guise of justice or right, and its replacement by one form or another of expediency. They are alternative forms of that abstractness, that hatred of concrete historical fact, which is the fountain of all political corruption.


Yet this corruption is no external enemy; it is inherent in the very fabric of the political life itself. The perfect concreteness of pure justice, of absolute right, is unattainable in the sphere of law, for law regarded as an objective reality over against the individual already shows the mark of that last abstraction which divides subject from object. Society, as distinct from the individual, is already an abstraction, and as such cannot have that claim upon the individual which is possessed only by an absolutely concrete principle. Law is not the will of the individual himself; it is a command laid upon him from without, and therefore his obedience to it is always tainted with utilitarianism. Hence all those utilitarian degradations of law to which we have referred are in a sense inevitable. For law—and the same, we shall see, is true of history as a whole—is an incomplete realization of concrete thought: it is essentially a step, but an imperfect step, from abstract to concrete, from utility to responsibility. The very externality of law to the agent binds it down to the world of abstract or scientific thought, and necessitates a contradiction by which, on the one hand, the law itself claims to embody right, while on the other the individual conscience claims to defy the law in the name of right. It is useless to debate the issue between the disputants; granted their common initial error, each is equally justified in his position. The same contradiction reappears in external relations, where the very fact that the state is law makes the inevitable conflict of state with state a conflict not of mere interest but of right against right, and therefore gives rise not to economic rivalry but to war.


We shall see that history is an unstable attitude which leads either back into science or forward into philosophy, according as the intellectual vigour of the historian is exhausted or stimulated by his attempt to get rid of the abstractions of science. So law is an unstable attitude, and either leads on to the position of absolute ethics, in which the law becomes simply the act of the individual's own will and its abstract objectivity disappears, or else leads back to the position of abstract or utilitarian ethics and the politics of the scientist and the business-man. The later nineteenth century, as we shall see later on, appears to have been a time when an historical attitude, insecurely reached, was relapsing into the abstractness of a new scientific phase of thought; a retrograde movement in the history of the human mind, though one which, perhaps, served only to lay the foundation of a more secure advance. If this was so, it is no ground for surprise that socialism, eugenics, militarism, commercialism, and their like should have especially flourished during that period, as parasites upon the political life of the civilized world. Nor is it improbable that each one of them may prove in time to have justified its existence and contributed something of value to the advancement of human life.


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