The Method of a Metaphysic of Ethics


Sorley, W. R. “The Method of a Metaphysic of Ethics.” The Philosophical Review 14, no. 5 (1905): 521. https://doi.org/10.2307/2177488


THERE is one view of ethics which makes its distinction from metaphysics easy and complete, and it is a view which certain considerations urge us to adopt. It may seem to some that progress lies with this view, and that, while the philosophical moralist moves only in a circle of ancient controversy, the facts of morality are being brought to light and organized into a body of knowledge by the psychologist and anthropologist. Their inquiry into the growth of mind and the record of its actual expressions in customs and institutions, brings them into contact with the characteristic ideas and facts of morality; and to these their analytic and historical methods have been applied with fertile result. The result is a descriptive and historical ethics, which has a right to claim as complete independence of metaphysics as any other descriptive or historical science.


Were this all, no question about the relation of ethics to metaphysics need arise. But it is not all. Even the anthropologists are not always content to let the matter rest here. Sometimes they go on to apply their results to decide upon different degrees of goodness in the ends of conduct, or to distinguish between good and evil. In so doing, new and strange meanings are assigned to scientific generalizations, and a great deal of crude metaphysics is concealed. But yet, if one may say so without offence, the heart of these writers is in the right place, though their ideas may be confused. They see that a merely descriptive and historical ethics neglects the central question of ethical interest. It may be very good history, but it is not really ethics. The ethical question does not arise out of an historical or merely scientific interest. If knowledge is its object, it is yet knowledge of the Good, and such a knowledge of it as will enable us to distinguish good from evil. History must go beyond history; analysis of mental states must become reflexional their significance before this knowledge can be intelligently sought. Descriptive ethics may pursue its way regardless of metaphysics so long as it keeps to its own proper task of describing men's ideas about goodness and the outward forms which express or determine these ideas. So long but no longer. As soon as the attempt is made to say what things are good, Or to distinguish between the goodness of different ends, the problem of validity is substituted for the problem of origin and history, and the descriptive moralist becomes, in spite of himself, a philosophical moralist. He treats ethical ideas not merely as facts with a history, but as conceptions whose valid application requires to be determined.


That ethics has to understand and interpret these conceptions, and not merely to trace their genesis and operation, I start by assuming. In metaphysics also, it will be admitted, we deal with conceptions which we try to understand and interpret. No merely introductory discussion can be expected to establish satisfactory definition either of metaphysics or of ethics; that must depend on the issue of the whole inquiry. But a preliminary view of the scope of each may be arrived at if we take account of the interest which determines its study. In ethics the object of our inquiry is to know what is good, and to arrive at as comprehensive an account as possible of the ground on which its goodness rests, or of the criterion by which it is known. Ethics may therefore be called the general theory of goodness. Metaphysics, on the other hand, arises from the desire to obtain a comprehensive view of reality, or of experience, as a whole, to find, if it be possible, the principle of unity in things, and at the same time to understand the principle of their distinction. We may, therefore, describe it as the general theory of reality. The implications of these two definitions will be very variously interpreted. But they might serve as a first and very general description of almost any system of ethics and of almost any system of metaphysics. And, vague as they are, they bring out the different interests which lie at the basis of ethical and of metaphysical inquiry and give a preliminary point of view for discussing the relation of ethics to metaphysics.


This discussion may perhaps be blocked at the outset by the assertion that the two subjects of inquiry have no relation to another: that 'good is good,' and 'reality is reality,' and that there is nothing more to be said. This view I will not discuss at length. It is better worth-while to attempt to show the relation of two things than to refute the denial of their being related at all. No such denial can be admitted as having a right either to block investigation or to prejudice its results; and this for several reasons: In the first place, the distinction of goodness and reality with which we start has not been shown to be an ultimate distinction; and even if it were to turn out to be an ultimate distinction, a distinction between concepts does not imply that they are without relation; and the relation of these concepts is at least a legitimate problem for philosophy. In the second place, the distinction as stated, involves a relation: the term 'good' is often used as synonymous with the term 'ought to be,' and it at least implies an 'ought to be'; it implies, therefore, a relation to possible or to conceivable reality. In the third place, if what is conceived as good is in any way or to any extent real, or can in any way or to any extent be realized, it follows that ‘reality' and 'goodness' are not absolutely sundered: the good maybe realized, reality may be moralized; ethics and metaphysics are not entirely separate and independent spheres of investigation.


When we proceed to inquire, into the relation of ethics to metaphysics, we may either start with metaphysical conceptions, conceptions about reality, that is, and note the point at which we pass over to ethical conceptions, or we may start with ethical conceptions and consider how it is possible or logical to pass from them to conceptions about reality. The former is the method of the metaphysical moralists, the latter, the method of the ethical metaphysicians. From whichever point we start, we ought, if our argument is sound, to come to the same conclusion. And one line of argument will not interfere with the other. If the present paper is restricted to the former line of argument, it is mainly because systems of metaphysical ethics have been frequently and fully elaborated, whereas ethical metaphysics still remains at the stage of suggestion, and its method of treatment is complicated by many preliminary questions which could not be discussed in a few pages.


The characteristic of the former method is to begin with metaphysic conceptions and from them to pass to ethical conceptions. Metaphysics is in this way made the basis of ethics, so that the latter in some way depends upon the former. This dependency sometimes regarded as simply the application of principles ascertained by reflection upon reality to a new subject-matter. It is a dependence of this sort that Professor Taylor has in view in his examination of metaphysical ethics. Ethics, in this view, is held to be "an application of metaphysics to the subject-matter of conduct." This kind of dependence is illustrated in the relation of mechanics to mathematics: mathematical principles are applied to a new subject-matter, the movements of masses. Metaphysical moralists may have often expressed themselves in a way which seems to imply a similar view concerning the relation of ethics to metaphysics. But it is not so easy to point to any system in which it is consistently and deliberately followed out. Professor Taylor regards 'metaphysical ethics' as practically equivalent to the Kantian view. The equivalence would hold if Kant had simply applied his categories and ideas of reason to the subject-matter of conduct. But he did not do so. He recognized the categorical imperative as a fact of consciousness, though not, in his terminology, a fact of experience; and his whole ethics becomes an interpretation of the moral consciousness. This is not mere conduct, but a conception directing and judging conduct. It may, of course, be called metaphysical, but it does not arise out of his speculative analysis of reality. And its significance extends to the problems left unsolved by the speculative analysis, so that Kant’s metaphysic of ethics has become the foundation of all subsequent ethical metaphysics. It is true that the conception of the categorical imperative is in line with the Ideas of Reason discovered in the Critique of Pure Reason. The Idea of Freedom, which in the latter is reached as a possible alternative to mechanical necessity, is empty without the conception Duty. But Duty has to be assumed as a fact of the moral consciousness before it can be shown that Freedom is its ratio essendi. Kant’s ethics is rightly called metaphysical; but its fundamental ethical conception is not deduced from his antecedent inquiry into the conditions of our knowledge of the world, or from any non-ethical metaphysics.


I should regard Hegel's dialectic rather than Kant's criticisms expressing the type of an ethics based upon metaphysics. For in Hegel we find what we do not find in Kant, an attempt to pass, by a demonstrative method, from non-ethical to ethical conceptions. Were it possible to accept the logical connectedness of the successive stages of Hegel's dialectic, and the independence of the movement of thought of anything outside itself, then Hegel must be admitted to have shown that the initial concept ‘being' implies the concepts of morality. The Absolute in which the self-evolution of the notion terminates is mind: “this," he holds, "is the supreme definition of the Absolute''; further, “the essential feature of mind is liberty"; and this free mind or will manifests itself in morality and law (Ency., 382, 384, 487).This method seems to me to be the true type of an ethics based on metaphysics. Ethics is not made to depend upon metaphysics in the way in which mechanics depends on mathematics; metaphysical conceptions are not simply applied 'to the subject matter of conduct. But the conceptions proper to the merely theoretical or speculative view of things are shown to require ethical conceptions as their logically necessary complement: reality is ultimately unintelligible unless we regard it as free mind; minds not really free unless it exhibits morality.


What is required from metaphysics is an interpretation, comprehensive and harmonious view, of reality. And the general characteristic of any dialectical method is the demonstration of the incompleteness of each category inadequate to the whole, until an ultimately intelligible point of view be reached. This general characteristic is exhibited by Hegel's method. But the latter has also a further and distinctive characteristic: the dialectical process is internally determined; the advance from thesis through antithesis to synthesis is due to the dialectic inherent in the process of thought itself; each step onward is determined by the preceding, and is a result of its very inadequacy; each inadequate conception not only shows its own inadequacy, but also produces the complementary factor by which this inadequacy is removed, and thus originates the more adequate conception which follows. This latter characteristic constitutes what may be called the intellectualist nature of Hegel's method. It is a movement of pure thought; and thought makes its own other. But, as the dialectic advances, it becomes increasingly difficult to regard each stage in the advance as logically derived from the preceding. What is really shown is rather the inadequacy of ascertain conception to reality as experienced, and the necessity of supplementing the conception in a given way so that this inadequacy may be made good.


Whether this criticism be just to Hegel or not is a question which cannot be entered upon now. It is introduced not for the purpose of criticism, but in order to draw a distinction. It is possible to follow a method so far similar to his that it passes from less to more adequate conceptions for the understanding of reality, and which yet has not the distinguishing feature of maintaining the complete internal determination of the process. Thought need not be held to be creative; it has to understand experience, not to account for it or to produce it. And the transition to a greater adequacy in the way of conceiving reality may, at certain places, be accompanied by and dependent upon the recognition of fresh elements in the experience upon which all knowledge of reality is built.


To bring out this view more clearly, we may start with the mechanical conception of reality and consider its leading category, that of causality, as giving us the most comprehensive view of things, a point of view from which we are able to regard each distinguishable event in the world-process as the effect of a preceding event. If we carry out this mode of conceiving things, we find ourselves speedily involved in the familiar infinite regress; and, as this cannot be completed, it cannot be made finally intelligible.


Further, if we think we explain an event by referring it to its cause, or understand it by knowing its cause, we can see that such understanding or explanation is really quite empty and futile. If a is understood by understanding its cause b, then must be understood in the same way by understanding its cause, and that again by d, and so on. Accordingly, a is not understood till we understand b, nor b till we understand c, and this process must either go on indefinitely or return into itself. In the former case, we get no understanding of a at all; in the latter case, not only have we got away from causality with its determined succession in time, but we do nothing more than give the unknown as the ground of knowledge of the unknown.


The causal concept thus shows its own inadequacy to serve as a final view of reality as soon as we apply it thoroughly. It may be said also that it lays bare the reason for this inadequacy. It is the distinction of reality into separate facts coupled with the method of looking for the ground of one fact in another. The conception lacks system and unity. This defect has to be made good. And it can be made good only by a conception which exhibits the unity of the different facts which form parts of the process of experience or of reality. This cannot be done, as we have seen, simply by regarding each as proceeding out of another; we must find a whole to the realization of which they all contribute, and through which the nature and position of each part can be understood. In this way, we are led from the conception of cause to the conception of purpose as giving the point of view from which we may understand reality at once as a process and as a unity. Our mechanical conception is supplanted by teleology. A further stage of reflexion may subject the conception of purpose also to criticism. Until purpose is qualified and defined, it may appear a mere form for asserting the unity of successive steps in a process, without in any way describing the essential character of this unity. And when we attempt to qualify purpose, we may find that purposes differ and even conflict; that some ground is necessary for deciding or reconciling the diversity and conflict; and that, if we would get an adequate view, we must finally describe the purpose, as Plato described it, as the Good. In this way, the search for an adequate and finally intelligible principle for the comprehension of reality might lead us from then on-ethical conceptions with which we started to a view which interprets reality by means of ethical conceptions. The inquiry for a general theory of reality would in this way run into the inquiry into the nature of goodness, and ethics would be found to be not merely based upon metaphysics, but itself a part of metaphysics.


The above is merely a sketch of an argument. But I do not see how it could be elaborated in such a way as to demonstrate that the conception of goodness is logically implied in the conception of causal connection. The result is not due to an inner dialectic of the notion unaided by any contribution from experience. Mechanism may be shown to be inconsistent with itself and unable to exhibit the systematic unity of things. But why do we seek that unity in the conception of purpose? It is not enough to answer that through its unity is found in the fragments of the temporal process. For some other conception might be able to give this unity; and we need some positive reason for selecting the conception purpose. The reason is not far to seek if wallow thought to receive suggestions from the 'given' factors inexperience. Purpose is a conception descriptive of actual experience, though of aspects of experience which, from their individual character, are unimportant for physical science, and are therefore neglected by the mechanical theory. Apart from the experience of acting for an end, it is impossible to see how the conception of purpose could have arisen at all. If we should imagine an intelligence without any purposive activity of its own, and into whose experience the fact of purposive action in no way enters, it might be conceived as viewing the course of events under the conception of regular sequence or of causality, and as forming for itself some kind of mechanical theory. It might also see that this mode of describing things was only a deceptive makeshift for thoroughly understanding them. But it would not be able to argue from the inadequacy of mechanical cause to the necessity of purpose; for it would be without the experience from which the conception of purpose is formed. Again, in our moral experience, we distinguish purposes as good and bad and better. Bute might imagine an intelligence with the power of understanding things as manifesting purpose which might yet regard all purposes with indifferent gaze and draw no distinction of good and evil. It might recognize the conflict inherent in such a conception without being able to compare purposes in respect of their goodness.


I maintain, therefore, that, when a metaphysical theory makes the transition from non -ethical conceptions about reality to the conception of goodness, it does so by taking into account an aspect of experience which it had previously omitted from consideration. The conception of goodness is based upon the facts of the moral consciousness; in particular, upon the consciousness of moral approbation and disapprobation. Whatever view may be arrived at as to the place of goodness in reality, judgments about goodness form part of the experience which has to be interpreted by philosophy. So far, therefore, from ethics and metaphysics being mutually indifferent, a complete metaphysics cannot disregard the data of the moral consciousness and must accordingly include a metaphysic of ethics. On the other hand, a metaphysic which proceeds upon data of experience so limited as to exclude the facts of the moral consciousness cannot issue in a legitimate ethical doctrine.


The preceding view may be illustrated by a short examination of the ethical method of T. H. Green. Green's book still holds the field amongst the speculative systems of ethics produced by the last generation; it is commonly taken as the representative of metaphysical ethics; it is sometimes interpreted as if the author deduced his ethical positions from metaphysical principles of a merely theoretical nature; and it is at any rate true that he definitely bases his ethical doctrine upon a certain metaphysical theory. His own summary of this is as follows:


"That the existence of one connected world, which is the presupposition of knowledge, implies the action of one self-conditioning and self-determining mind; and that, as our knowledge, sour moral activity was only explicable on supposition of a certain reproduction of itself, on the part of this eternal mind, as the self of man."


The greater part of the metaphysical portion of the Prolegomena was published by Green himself in Mind under the title “Can there be a Natural Science of Man?" This title suggests that his purpose was to refute the competency of the mechanical theory, as applied to mind and morals by Hume and by the modern naturalists, and to substitute a more adequate view. Such an inquiry could not have been carried out without being based upon experience, seeing that the whole question in dispute concerns the interpretation of experience. He begins by acknowledging our experience, moral as well as intellectual, as the fact or datum to be explained, and he goes on to seek a conception adequate to its explanation. That this correctly describes his starting point and procedure, as he conceived them, is clear from the sentences which follow the above quotation:


"Proof of such a doctrine, in the ordinary sense of the word proof, from the nature of the case there cannot be. It is not a truth deducible from other established or conceded truths. It is not a statement of an event or matter of fact that can be the object of experiment or observation. It represents a conception to which no perceivable or imaginable object can possibly correspond, but one that affords the only means by which, reflecting on our moral and intellectual experience conjointly, taking the world and ourselves into account, we can put the whole thing together and understand how (not why, but how) we are and do what we consciously are and do. Given this conception, and not without it, we can at any rate express that which it cannot be denied demands expression, the nature of man's reason and man’s will, of human progress and human shortcoming, of the effort after good and the failure to gain it, of virtue and vice, in their connection and in their distinction, in their essential opposition and in their no less essential unity. “Some remarks may be made on the method which is concisely described in this paragraph. In the first place, Green recognizes quite clearly that a metaphysical theory of ethics is not a mere deduction from metaphysical principles of a non-ethical kind. It is concerned with the facts of moral experience; these belong to its data; and it has to find a conception which will express their nature and without which their nature cannot be expressed. This seems to me to imply the main thesis for which I have been contending. A metaphysic of ethics must recognize and be based upon the facts of moral experience, just as all metaphysics must be based upon experience generally. Metaphysical reasoning may, however, proceed a certain length without reflecting upon that special aspect of experience which we call moral. Its conceptions are in this case so far incomplete; their incompleteness may, perhaps, be demonstrable without any further widening of our view of experience; but the incompleteness cannot be made good without taking account of the moral aspect of experience which was overlooked, and may have been legitimately overlooked, in the earlier stages of the argument.


In the second place, "moral and intellectual experience" are not separate or independent parts of experience. They are aspects of the same experience, and must therefore be taken "conjointly," if we would understand experience as a whole. From this it follows that the characteristics of one aspect of this experience may be expected to exhibit affinities or correspondence with the characteristics of another of its aspects. The facts of intellectual experience will therefore not be irrelevant (or may not be irrelevant) to ethical theory. The conceptions by which, based mainly on our "intellectual" experience, we attempt to interpret the world and our position in it may have a very decided bearing upon ethics. Thus, the spiritual or rational interpretation of ultimate good set forth by Green would be impossible, or, at least, illusory, if the mechanical theory were accepted as inadequate account of the world and of ourselves. Reflection on the facts of moral experience will thus lead not merely to an ethical theory; it may also require us to revise our theoretical conceptions so that they may be adequate to the expression of a larger experience than that with which we started.


The peculiar difficulty of Green's ethics seems to me to arise from the special characteristic of the metaphysical conception which he reaches, and by which he seeks to explain morality ;and this, again, seems to me to be connected with an incompleteness in his view of the moral experience which has to be expressed by that conception.


Green is never able to show how the conception of an eternal self-consciousness, "one self-conditioning and self-determining mind," of which all knowledge and morality are reproductions, succeeds in "expressing" the salient facts of moral experience. The assertion of eternity is not an explanation of the temporal process; our understanding of the gradual way in which, in spite of error and in spite of evil, knowledge and morality are slowly attained is not really facilitated by any mere insistence upon the doctrine that complete knowledge and perfect goodness are eternally present to this infinite self-consciousness. It may even be held that the assertion of the eternal realization of this perfection makes it more instead of less difficult to understand the radical distinction of good and evil in the moral consciousness, and the prominence of evil as a fact in human development and in the world-process.


The data which Green had in view when he spoke of " moral and intellectual experience" were the facts of knowledge and desire. He does not seem to have given special recognition, among his primary data, to the judgments of worth or goodness; yet these are as much parts of our experience as judgments about matters of fact or efforts after certain objects or ideals; and it is their presence that makes our experience not merely a knowing and active, but also a moral experience. In not giving explicit recognition to this fact of moral approbation, or judgment of goodness, Green seems to me to overlook an aspect of the moral consciousness which needs to be taken into account for the formation of an adequate ethical conception.


The place of this consciousness of moral approbation may perhaps be said to be taken, in Green's system, by the experience of "satisfaction" on which he repeatedly lays stress. This "satisfaction “is, however, a somewhat elusive notion. " In all willing, “he says, "a self-conscious subject seeks to satisfy itself that which for the time it presents to itself as its good. “In this passage, "self-satisfaction" seems equivalent to "good," as elsewhere “self-satisfaction or self-realization" are spoken of as synonymous. Here, of course, good is not the same thing as amoral good or 'true good,' nor is seeking self-satisfaction the same thing as finding it. The voluptuary, for instance, seeks self-satisfaction, but it is "impossible that the self-satisfaction should be found in any succession of pleasures. “Thus, it would appear that self-satisfaction (when found) will be the experience or consciousness of attaining a true good. Now it is owing to the "operative consciousness in man of a possible state of himself better than the actual," that "men come to seek their satisfaction, their good, in objects conceived as desirable because contributing to the best state or perfection of man." The attainment of this "best state" would give us self-satisfaction. But the best state is unattainable, and even inconceivable: “we cannot indeed describe any state in which man, having become all that he is capable of becoming, . . . would find rest for his soul." And thus, it would appear that the consciousness of satisfaction is something only sought, never found, never experienced, and unable, therefore, to be taken as part of the data of “moral and intellectual experience."


In all this Green has in view the final good, an unattainable ideal, and the consciousness of satisfaction which would result from its attainment. His discussion, therefore, would not seem to have anything to do with the facts of moral experience which may be held, and which he held, to be the basis of fact with the interpretation of which ethics is concerned. Yet if it is a possible experience, it is surely in some degree also an actual experience. Dissatisfaction, at any rate, is clearly regarded by Green as an actual experience. And if we experience dissatisfaction in connection with certain activities and attainments, is it not equally true that a certain (at least modified) satisfaction with other activities or attainments is equally a fact of the moral consciousness?


This satisfaction or dissatisfaction would, therefore, seem to be the same expression of our moral consciousness as that which is variously spoken of as consciousness of worth, perception of good or evil, judgment of right or wrong, and called by many other names. And the " moral and intellectual experience," upon which both metaphysics and ethics are based, should be definitely recognized as including: (I) the judgments of fact, which form the basis of our understanding of the nature and connection of things;(2) the experience of desire and will, which compels us to regard reality as a process into which conscious beings enter as active; and (3) judgments of worth or goodness, which enable and compel us to set a value upon this process, and upon its constituent factors and processes, and which direct us to choose the good and to avoid the evil. All these enter into the experience which has to be expressed by a comprehensive philosophical conception; they form the material which it has to criticize, understand, and interpret.


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