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British Idealism$

W. J. Mander

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199559299

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559299.001.0001

The Idealist Ethic of Social Self-Realization

Chapter:
(p.181) 6 The Idealist Ethic of Social Self-Realization
Source:
British Idealism
Author(s):

W. J. Mander (Contributor Webpage)

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559299.003.0006

Abstract and Keywords

In addition to and connected with its fresh metaphysics and philosophy of religion, the British Idealist school put forward a radically new kind of moral theory; one which might be called the idealist ethic of social self-realization. Rapidly gaining popularity, its re-construal of the moral problem came to be the dominant mode of thought in ethics for twenty years, and a major force for twenty more after that. This chapter examines that system of ethics, through detailed consideration of the theories of Bradley, Green, and Edward Caird. Particular attention is paid to the concepts of self-realization, the common good, ‘My Station and its Duties’, and the social conception of the self. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the various textbooks and manuals which popularized this conception of ethics.

Keywords:   Ethics, Bradley, Green, Edward Caird, self-realization, the common good, My Station and its Duties, social conception of the self, popularization, Kantianism, Utilitarianism

In addition to and, indeed, connected with its fresh metaphysics and philosophy of religion, the British neo-Hegelian school put forward a radically new kind of moral theory; one which we might call the idealist ethic of social self-realization. Prior to this decisive point, moral philosophy in Britain was a contested domain with no one mode of thought achieving dominance. In the mid-nineteenth century, it had been characterized, in the main, by hedonistic utilitarianism (such as that of Bentham or J.S. Mill) which tended to be ‘radical’ and, balancing it, by various brands of intuitionism (such as that of William Whewell or Henry Calderwood) which in their appeal to ‘moral sense’ or ‘conscience’ were more conservative. To that mix had gradually been added the influence of Kant's moral thought (transmitted through, for example, Martineau) and of evolutionary naturalism (pressed, for example, by Herbert Spencer, Francis Galton, and Leslie Stephen). But for all these new forces had begun to make themselves felt, the basic understanding of moral philosophy, as an ahistorical search for first principles of right action, had continued essentially unchanged. Idealism shattered this. Rapidly gaining popularity, its re-construal of the moral problem came to be the dominant mode of thought in ethics for twenty years, and a major force for twenty more after that. Indeed for many people, less interested perhaps to follow them into other more speculative areas, it was the philosophical doctrine that defined British Idealism. This chapter will examine that system of ethics, through the theories of Bradley, Green, and Caird, as well as (more briefly) those who popularized and developed them.

6.1 F.H. Bradley

In 1876, setting out a moral philosophy quite unlike anything that had gone before, F.H. Bradley burst onto the philosophical scene. Without simply appealing to an outmoded religious conception of the universe, his Ethical Studies1 nonetheless claimed to overturn (p.182) the narrow orthodoxies of the scientific world picture and offer a view of mankind as something transcending any analysis simply in terms of matter endowed with instinct. Perhaps more than any other, it was the book that made people really take notice of the new idealistic wave—in retrospect Bernard Bosanquet described it as ‘epoch-making’.2

One of the most distinctive things about the book was its style, which is bold, lively, and picturesque. It still makes a great read.3 But while that may commend it to us, as literature, it must be confessed that, as philosophy, and especially to modern reading tastes, it can make its import hard to follow. Bradley's ideas and terminology are often alien and unfamiliar, his arguments are often compressed, while his aims—even at times his conclusions—are often left implicit. Moreover the book is highly polemical and, while this makes for writing that is smart and full of memorable turns of phrase it makes at the same time for writing which is often far from lucid; too frequently he descends into ridicule of opponents when what is really wanted is argument or explanation.

But what made the book truly radical when it was first published was its use of Hegel. It has often been noted that Ethical Studies was in fact the most Hegelian of all Bradley's writings. This is so in two respects. First, there is the Hegelian pedigree of many of its concepts and themes; for example, its central claim that neither individuals nor their ethical duties can be understood except in the context of the wider social whole in which they occur is a clear, and acknowledged,4 reworking of the Hegelian notions of Sittlichkeit and concrete universality. But secondly, the Hegelian influence extends beyond the book's content to its very structure. It has an explicitly dialectical form in which positions are advanced, criticized, and then modified in an ever advancing (and ascending) sequence, which is why Bradley insisted that ‘the essays must be read in the order in which they stand’.5 He was right to stress the point. The book must indeed be read from one end to the other, not selectively taking particular chapters out of context (as has often happened), for it is constructed as a continuous argument with the earlier essays preparing the way for those that follow, the later ones amplifying or qualifying those that come before it. Its style is dialectic in the sense that many of its claims are but provisional, asserted at one point only to be modified later on. But the debt to Hegel should not be allowed to obscure all others; the book also drew heavily on Aristotle in its emphasis on the development of character and the fundamentally social or political make-up of human nature. Bradley concludes his discussion of the position of the utilitarians with the recommendation that they need to (p.183) read—not Hegel—but Aristotle; for his own theory of self-realization is not he thinks fundamentally at variance with that of Aristotle (and Plato) that we should seek happiness or well-being.6

A recurring difficulty in understanding and assessing Bradley's Ethical Studies lies in the fact that much of what he assumes is left unsaid. His aim was to write a book of moral philosophy only, without trespassing into matters of logic, metaphysics, or psychology, but he is handicapped in this ambition by the very fact that he himself did not believe that there were any sharp or final divisions between questions in ethics and deeper questions about the nature of ultimate reality. In consequence we find him constantly touching on more fundamental issues which underlie and explain his meaning, but from which he draws himself back, or at which he merely hints. Many of these he went on to develop in later works, and a full understanding of his position requires a grasp of the rest of his thought (which is one reason why, reversing chronology, this study has looked first at his metaphysics), but the reader of Ethical Studies alone does not have available that material.

6.1.1 Free will

The book opens with a discussion of free will and responsibility. Bradley tries to capture the common-sense, or ‘vulgar’, notion of responsibility—for a person to be responsible for an act it must be one which they did, it must have issued from their will without compulsion, and it must have been chosen in understanding (especially moral understanding) of the situation; we cannot be responsible where we do not understand what we do. But neither the indeterministic nor the deterministic philosophies of action standardly advanced can really capture this picture, he complains. Indeterminism in its suggestion that certain actions can escape from the causal nexus altogether, reduces liberty to unpredictable and inexplicable chance which, far from saving freedom, ‘annihilates the very conditions of it.’7 Determinism, on the other hand, by resolving everything into sequences of causally connected states, commits itself to a psychology concerned with nothing besides collections of sensations held together by necessitating laws of association; a psychology that renders the enduring objects in which we believe but fictions of the mind, and hence even ‘the mind itself…a fiction of the mind’.8 In other words, it loses sight of the underlying continuous agent without which responsibility is nonsense. Neither way is philosophy able to do justice to our ordinary viewpoint.

This discussion highlights a notable feature of the book, namely its great respect for everyday moral thinking. As his thought went out of fashion in later years Bradley's philosophy acquired a reputation for being both abstract and absurd, faults which twentieth-century approaches grounded in science and common sense were supposed to have corrected, but we see here that this reputation was undeserved. However, we (p.184) should not make the opposite mistake of supposing that he was simply a slave to everyday intellectual habit or prejudice; if we respect common sense we need not do so uncritically and what is needed, he argues, is to find ‘a philosophy which thinks what the vulgar believe’.9 The rest of Ethical Studies itself may be read as his attempt to do just that.

On the basis of this chapter's support for the common-sense understanding of moral responsibility, it has sometimes been thought that Bradley held a retributivist view of punishment. But the true picture is more complex. Neither straightforwardly endorsed, nor quite rejected and left behind, the view of the vulgar is rather ‘carried forward’ somehow to find its place in a higher synthesis. We get a sense of what that place might be when, revisiting the question some years later, Bradley argues that there is value in each of the three ‘traditional’ theories of punishment—education, deterrence, and retribution—but that each must be superseded or held subordinate to a higher law, ‘what we may call the principle of social surgery’.10 Bringing together Darwinism and idealist social holism, this justifies punishment in terms of its value to the social body as a whole.

6.1.2 Self-realization

After this initial discussion, the substance of the book proper begins with a consideration of the question, ‘Why should I be moral?’ which Bradley rejects as senseless. Morality is precisely the assertion of some end valuable in itself, so that were we to seek it for some other ulterior reason our action would not be moral at all. Yet taking it as an end in itself, there can be no categorical imperative, no value or rule a man may be compelled to recognize regardless of his own personal feelings and desires. If he will not acknowledge some particular value, or others which entail it, including that of consistency itself, if at the extreme he asserts complete scepticism and just does whatever he feels prompted to do, then argument ceases.

Thus we cannot prove that there is anything good in itself, we can only assume that there is and ask what it might be. That, of course, is not something to be expressed in simply a sentence—it is the topic of the whole book—but there is, thinks Bradley, merit in offering as a place to start from ‘the most general expression’ possible of that goal.11 In its very broadest terms Bradley suggests that we may find the end of all action in self-realization. The fundamental issue of ethics is not what we do but what we are. He does not offer to prove the appropriateness of this ‘formula’,12 in part because that would require a completed metaphysical system, but also because it is to some extent (p.185) simply a blank schema, something to be filled in and rendered plausible in the essays that follow. But if not proved, the claim may be explained. Were the psychological egoist correct that people aim only at pleasure, that is, at pleasurable states of their own being, it would follow immediately that all action aims at self-realization. Bradley rejects that doctrine, but his own position is not very distant from it, for he holds that we only aim at what we desire, that ‘what we desire must be in our minds’,13 and hence that all deliberate action is a species of self-fulfilment. In wanting a given state to obtain our very identity becomes bound up with it—it ‘belongs to’ us and is ‘made part of’ us as we ‘feel ourselves one with it’—making its realization a realization also of our own self. Our identity lies in the realization of our goals.

However, Bradley goes on, what we aim to realize is not simply a state of the self but rather the self as a whole. For the self is more than simply a sum of its parts. What is needed instead is ‘some concrete whole that we can realize in our acts, and carry out in our life’,14 something with a persistent overall cohesive pattern and not simply a haphazard series of disconnected individual elements. The good life is not that which jumps from whatever is best at one moment to whatever is best at another, like an investor who somehow manages always to buy stock which is rising which he sells before it falls, or like a politician who manages to switch sides just as public opinion changes, or like the fashionable dresser who somehow manages always to keep up with whatever look is in vogue. No, the good life is a life good as a whole, one springing from a unity of vision, a life which manifests a single aim and overall coherence—whatever the vicissitudes of the world around us. It is a life of integrity. We seek to realize ourselves as what he calls an ‘infinite whole.’15 This Bradley understands, not in the mathematical sense of being without end, but in the Hegelian sense (already encountered) of being self-contained; the finite is that which is limited from outside, the infinite that which is limited from within.16 Understood in this way Bradley's demand that the moral life be infinite has clear parallels with Kant's demand that it be autonomous rather than heteronomous. It must, of course, be asked how, if human beings are finite and inevitably affected from outside, they could ever become an infinite whole of the kind that is suggested here. Bradley's reply is this: ‘You can not be a whole, unless you join a whole.’17 In other words, only as an integral member of some unity with which we are fully identified, can we enjoy anything like the autonomy of existence which is recommended here. It is worth stressing that at this stage the notion of ‘self-realization’ remains an entirely formal one—an immoral man realizes himself as much as a moral one—and thus ‘the question in morals is to find the true whole, realizing which will practically realize the true self.’18 It is to this question (p.186) Bradley now turns, considering two standard ethical positions, both of which could be thought of as ways of fleshing out this bare pattern: hedonism or ‘pleasure for pleasure's sake, and Kantianism or ‘duty for duty's sake’.

6.1.3 Hedonism

To begin with he objects that the doctrine of hedonism fails to accord with our ordinary moral beliefs; ‘if there be any one thing that well-nigh the whole voice of the world, from all ages, nations, and sorts of men, has agreed to declare is not happiness, that thing is pleasure, and the search for it.’19 But the position is theoretically flawed too. In his eyes the fundamental problem is its inability to provide us with any solid or realizable goal for our lives. In conceiving of pleasures as mental states isolated from the means by which they are arrived at, it fixes on merely subjective and transitory feelings and reduces the good life to nothing but a series of such ‘perishing particulars’.20 The ‘self   ’ to be realized evaporates into a heterogeneous sequence of instantaneous ‘satisfactions’. The hedonist attempts to give more unity and coherence to his postulated ideal by suggesting we aim at a ‘sum’ of pleasures, but the pleasures of a lifetime cannot be summed until we are dead and past enjoying them. We might seek instead to maximize the pleasures of the moment, but if our target here is as much pleasure as possible, we must all inevitably fail to reach it since no one can experience an infinity of pleasures, while if we aim for as much pleasure as we can get, trivially everyone all of the time achieves that, at least by the lights of the hedonist psychology that underlies this theory in the first place.21 But if these are the problems of egoistic hedonism, it is clear that they cannot be overcome by ‘modern utilitarianism’ which seeks not the pleasure of one but that of all. For if there can be no greatest happiness for an individual, the sum of happiness for many is just as much of a ‘wild and impossible fiction’.22 Nor thinks Bradley is hedonism even practical. John Stuart Mill would have us believe that the rules of morality lay down our gathered knowledge of what produces pleasure, a kind of ‘moral Almanac’,23 but it is always possible to imagine cases where following these rules would not produce the greatest happiness. In such cases, if we keep to the rule it is unequal to its professed end, but if we break it then it seems to show itself unnecessary. Bradley's attack on hedonism has become justly famous, and in it his invective reaches great heights.

At the time of his writing this chapter the principal statement of hedonistic theory was still John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, but just before the book went to press, Henry Sidgwick brought out his important Methods of Ethics (1874), which also advanced a utilitarian view and with much greater sophistication and detail than Mill. Bradley added a short note to the end of his chapter in response to Sidgwick's book, but, feeling he had not done the matter justice, he also published a pamphlet the following year. Entitled Mr Sidgwick's Hedonism, this detailed critique adds little new with regard to (p.187) Bradley's views on hedonism in general, but holding that any consistent hedonism must be egoistic, he argues that Sidgwick's universalist objectivist version fails to make its case to the contrary. Were the egoistic to claim (as Sidgwick thinks he does) objective desirability for his own goals whilst denying it to those of others he could be convicted of inconsistency, but in fact he makes no such claim. He holds not that his are the only desirable ends, but rather that his are the only desirable ends to him. The egoistic position is in effect the denial that anything is objectively desirable, and as such immune to logical critique.24

6.1.4 Kantianism

Turning his attention to hedonism's main rival, Bradley objects that Kantianism is no more able to face the court of common sense than it, for the ethic that urges ‘duty for duty's sake’ insists that laws are exceptionless, but ordinary morality does not suppose this at all. There can be no absolute universal principles of moral action, for inevitably laws conflict and there is no rule which in some circumstances might not be broken. Nor again is Kantianism without deeper theoretical defect. It weakness lies, Bradley urges, in the excessively abstract or formal character of its conception; in concentrating exclusively on its rational side it fails to realize the self as a whole.25 The problem is that no act can be the mere carrying out of an abstract principle of duty, and we cannot will without willing something definite, but there is no way of passing from the mere form of duty to any particular duties themselves, or what comes to the same thing, any act whatsoever can be shown to be in accordance with such abstract principles. In short, it tells us to do the right thing for the sake of the right, but it does nothing towards telling us what that thing is. Bradley was not, of course, the first to raise these objections, and he makes explicit his debt to Hegel in this critique.26

Hedonism was found excessively particular, Kantianism excessively universal. Both errors, argues Bradley, arise out of a false abstraction, in the one case of pleasure itself apart from pleasant acts, and in the other of the general form of duty apart from individual duties themselves. What is needed is a middle path between these two extremes, a combination of the particular and the universal, a reconciliation which can at the same time hold on to their other valid insights. This is precisely what Bradley offers in the next chapter entitled ‘My Station and its Duties’.

6.1.5 ‘My Station and its Duties’

Progress is made once we see that previous theories, especially hedonism (but to an extent Kantianism also), operate with a mistaken conception of individuality. They treat individuals as distinct elements that can be added up to form an aggregate. But that is wrong. Humans are social creatures. They do not live alone (like, say, polar bears) but in communities. Moreover this is essential to their being. Although the actual forms of (p.188) association which we find among people are conventional (which explains their diversity) we can have strong grounds for saying that social life itself is both natural to and constitutive of our being.

Now, this idea is hardly original. Many of the Idealists (as has already been noted) were wont to trace it back to Aristotle, and even Plato. Bradley's immediate source was more contemporary however, for his position owes much to Hegel's conception of the self; indeed the case is advanced in part through extensive quotation from Hegel.27 For Hegel any individual self is what it is only because of where it is—it owes its nature to the social context in which it finds itself—with the consequence that what is most truly individual is, in reality, the community as a whole.28 Still at the time unfamiliar in Britain, Bradley develops this notion with new vigour and intensity, for he is reacting against the strong individualism of prevailing British philosophy. The key figure he wishes to take issue with here is Mill who asserts the metaphysical autonomy of the individual; people combine together in societies like collections of atoms in physics, Mill insists, not fusions of substances in chemistry.29

The falsity of such individualism can be seen in many different ways, responds Bradley. Socialization begins with our birth. We are not born a blank slate, but come into the world already bearing the characteristics of our family, our nation or race, and our species. Although the second is in this day more controversial, the first and third of these must be allowed. Much of the character with which we are born we share with our family and species, from whom we inherit it. But what nature starts nurture only confirms, because from the moment it is born the child is educated and socialized by and into its community. Our very life with others is a constant schooling that inevitably shapes us profoundly, a unremitting formative pressure that not even the wisest or most stubborn among us can resist. Which of our beliefs, attitudes or characteristics have we come to quite by ourselves wholly unaided? In explicating this process of socialization Bradley particularly calls attention to language, for language is far less our servant than we imagine. It shapes our very thoughts and characters, but at the same time carries with it the ideas and sentiments of society. One need only think, for example, of the way in which the language of the Bible has dug itself deep into the consciousness of Western civilization. Bradley emphasizes too that the socially determined development of our self is not a process of our youth only. Once we reach adulthood, we take up a position in life, and our identity is largely formed by that station and role in society, he urges. A person may be, say, an office worker, a parent and a member of the local football club, and probably most of his weekly activities can be explained under one or other of those three headings. We like to think that we make our place in life, but in truth matters are reversed and it is our place in life that (p.189) makes us. As a last but no less vital element of the picture, our identity is massively shaped by our relations to others, our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. ‘I am who I am because of everyone’, a recent advertising slogan for a mobile phone company (Orange), could well have been Bradley's own here, for he holds that social relations make for personhood. We define who we are, we become who we are, through our interrelations with others.

Where do all these points take us? What Bradley is arguing here is that the mere individual, the unit out of which Mill wished to build society, is a non-existent ‘fiction’.30 The individual apart from the community is an unreal ‘abstraction’,31 not even comprehensible except as a member of a society. The idea that society is assembled out of distinct units, Bradley dismisses as a ‘fable’.32 Not even marriage, he says, the seemingly most obvious and simple such social composition, is really like this; the marriage unit shapes its two members as much as the other way round. Society, Bradley is suggesting, is an organic whole33 in which we are but members; like ants in a colony. On our own apart from the wider whole we are really incomplete beings. The agent must not be abstracted out of this context and considered apart from his social relations, for it is they that work to constitute his very identity. ‘To know what a man is…you must not take him in isolation. He is one of a people, he was born into a family, he lives in a certain society, in a certain state.’34

This essentially metaphysical account of self and society has an ethical dimension too. Because we are social in nature, our happiness is social in nature. Fulfilment lies in my station and its duties: ‘What [a man] has to do depends on what his place is, what his function is, and all that comes from his station in the organism.’35 To be moral is to be a good member of one's society, loyally discharging the various responsibilities which membership involves. To some extent this is something which can be demonstrated empirically, for doubtless one of the most satisfying of human joys is that of friendship and community, that of belonging, that of playing a useful role. But more deeply the point is a philosophical one. Because the self we realize is social, so necessarily its happiness is social. A happy father is one whose family is well and content, a happy ruler is one whose subjects thrive under his reign, a happy teacher is one whose students are learning, a happy shopkeeper is one whose customers are satisfied. Whatever his private feelings, in his social role, his content or discontent is social in nature. But it is our social self, Bradley argues, that is our true self, who we are as opposed to who we may take ourselves to be. Since we are social, it is only within a society that we can properly realize ourselves. To make the same point in deontological rather than teleological terms, the moral imperative which I experience as a binding and coercive force capable of standing over and against my individual choice or (p.190) opinion is cashed out as the will of the society in which I find myself, something which in leaving behind my apparent and private self for my more genuine and social identity I come to recognize and embrace as in fact my own true will, the voice of my more authentic identity. Ethics is not about private individuals, not even about the relations between such private individuals, but a matter of the communal life in which we all share, and therefore continuous with political philosophy. This politicizing of moral philosophy, whose other side is precisely a moral underpinning of political philosophy, which we here find in Bradley is as typical of idealist thought as it is unfamiliar today where the disciplines tend to be kept apart.

The goal sought was a combination of the universal and the particular. The ideal of ‘My Station and its Duties’, as a unified aim for a whole life rather than just a disparate set of targets and as something pertaining not simply to the individual but to the wider social whole, is certainly ‘universal’; yet it is in no way formal or abstract, existing as it does only through the concrete details of the actual duties of any given station. It is thus what Bradley calls a ‘concrete universal’,36 in the earliest application of this Hegelian notion, later picked up by many of the Idealists. Although the term itself falls out of use in his later writings, the basic notion of a whole which incorporates diversity, ‘a perfect unity of homogeneity and specification’,37 remains a very central one throughout his philosophy.

6.1.6 Ideal morality

Presented as a dialectical solution to hedonism and Kantianism, many have thought that ‘My Station and its Duties’ was Bradley's final position. Moreover widely reported and anthologized (sometimes only in part) the doctrine has often been taken as crude conservatism (‘accepting and keeping to your position in the social hierarchy’) or relativism (‘our moral duty is set by whatever community or age to which we happen to belong to’). But the material to avoid these errors may be found in the last few pages of the chapter as Bradley himself lists a series of ‘very serious objections’38 to his theory. We hope to leave our bad self behind and find our higher truer self in our social station, but a self may become so corrupted or encrusted by bad habits as to be unable to take up its station, and even the best of us can claim the benefits of service only for that period of time in which we are fully engaged in the satisfying work which it gives us. Moreover, even so far as we succeed in placing ourselves in society, we can have no guarantee of self-fulfilment in doing so. For the social whole in which an agent finds himself may demand of him self-sacrifice, or itself ‘may be in a confused or rotten condition.’39 For although there can be no absolute timeless morality, and what is thought right in one age may come to seem wrong in another, such relativism is mitigated through the idea (p.191) of evolution, the understanding of history as ‘the working out of the true human nature through various incomplete stages’.40 Nor may a man take his morality simply from the society in which he lives. For that is something in a state of historical transition, and as a rational creature he cannot give up the capacity to stand outside his society, reflect upon it, and work to make it better. Nor finally is quite everything that we are given us by society; there are some aspects of self-development which do not involve others at all. Says Bradley, ‘the content of the ideal self does not fall wholly within any community, is in short not merely the ideal of a perfect social being’.41

In other words, there is more to ethics than just my station and its duties. Precisely what more emerges as we move on to consider the next stage of the journey, which Bradley designates ‘ideal morality’. Evolving out of the previous stage by retaining its genuine advances at the same time as correcting its flaws, the content of the good self to be realized at this level can be placed under three different heads. The first and still most important (in the sense of providing the largest part of our duties) is our station and its responsbilities, but to this is added a second element which, although still social, covers our aspirations ‘beyond what the world expects of us, a will for good beyond what we see to be realized anywhere’.42 Many people have no moral ideal beyond the station in which they live, but there are others capable of rising to a point of view from which to see a better morality for society. They are, of course, its critics and reformers. The third region concerns duty which, although a recognizable moral imperative, such as the pursuit of beauty or of truth, ‘in its essence does not involve direct relation to other men’.43 Although neither science nor art could ever have arisen without society, and both undoubtedly benefit society, they may be pursued as ends in themselves without appeal to any social organism. It is vital that we notice these two further elements of Bradley's moral system, for they serve to clear him of charges all too often made, that his thought is overly conservative and that he wholly subordinates or even reduces the needs of the individual to those of society. Individuals may, indeed must when necessary, criticize their society, nor are they merely its pawns; they have a life of their own not given to them by their context. But for all that, individuals cannot be understood apart from society.

6.1.7 The value of the Absolute

Although the most plausible and complete account of morality that can be given—there is no better system of morality to follow it—ideal morality is, thinks Bradley, no (p.192) more dialectically stable than its predecessors and it too must give way to a higher state. ‘Reflection on morality leads us beyond it. It leads us, in short, to see the necessity of a religious point of view.’44 This transition and Bradley's general view of religion have already been examined, but bringing together metaphysics, religion, and ethics there is one last matter for us to consider; the value of the Absolute. Although not to be equated with God, Bradley regards the Absolute to be something of very great value indeed. ‘In every sense it is perfect’,45 he tells us. Reality itself, he claims, is so arranged that it meets our own highest evaluative standards—intellectual, emotional and spiritual—in a truly fortuitous and satisfying way; ‘Higher, truer, more beautiful, better and more real—these, on the whole, count in the universe as they count for us.’46 But this claim, for all we might hope it true, will hardly reassure until we have addressed the many questions it throws up.

If the Absolute is perfect, the only possible solution to the problem of evil is that it is some sort of appearance. But, argues Bradley, the price of this solution is that so also must goodness be, for the two are an opposing pair. The Absolute as a whole, he concludes, can be called properly neither good nor evil. However applicable we may find them to its parts, these are contradictory and relational terms which cannot apply to the ultimate reality itself. He says, ‘Evil and good are not illusions, but they are most certainly appearances. They are one-sided appearances, each overruled and transmuted in the whole.’47

Why does Bradley believe this? The problem he locates is the same as that which powered the transition from ethics to religion discussed in the previous chapter. The basic dilemma can be set out simply enough. To say that ultimate reality is evil is to say that it ought not to be as it is, but, in view of the holism inherent in Bradley's conception of ultimate reality, this presupposes an unacceptable and contradictory separation between idea and existence. The better reality is taken to be, the closer we would get towards healing this unsatisfactory schism (for what is and what ought to be are being brought closer into line with one another) and one would naturally expect that if ultimate reality were to achieve the culmination of this process that it would therefore be in a state of complete goodness. But Bradley argues that it would be no less contradictory to suppose that ultimate reality be good, for, to put it paradoxically, if it truly is as it ought to be then there is no longer any way that it ought to be, and thus no content to calling it good. The nub of Bradley's point is this. As standards, good and bad separate what is and what ought to be, demanding as he puts it ‘resolution of this difference between idea and existence’,48 but this is a contradictory demand that could (p.193) only be met at the expense of these notions themselves, which presuppose the separation. This contradiction is most clearly seen in that form of the good that we call satisfied desire. Bradley says, ‘A satisfied desire is, in short, inconsistent with itself. For, so far as it is quite satisfied, it is not a desire; and, so far as it is a desire, it must remain at least partly unsatisfied.’49

The Absolute, then, is something quite beyond good and evil. But does this not leave it in an evaluative vacuum? Bradley thinks not. The Absolute which transcends good and evil is, he thinks, from the evaluative point of view, something perfect. What he means by this claim can be seen by noting that the reason why good and evil do not apply to reality is different in each case. What stops reality being bad is the impossibility of an unsatisfied standard—the divorce between ideal and actual can never be quite complete—what stops it being good is that a satisfied standard is no standard at all. This means that, although the Absolute transcends both good and bad, the transcendence has a definite direction from bad to good rather than good to bad, and that allows us to give some sense to the claim that reality is perfect. Though we cannot really grasp the value of the Absolute, it being beyond our ethical concepts, the passage from bad to good and beyond functions as a kind of arrow towards what we mean.

A comparison may be useful here. Suppose I want to emigrate somewhere safe, and am told of a country that contains neither outlaws nor police. Is this a useful piece of information for me? Perhaps not, for it could be that the country has no laws and thus that these categories do not apply, in which case the information would tell me nothing about how safe it was. But the information might be very relevant, for it could be that the country does have laws, and that the police, being so successful, have caught all the outlaws and, finding themselves without work, have all retired, in which case this would be a very safe place. The sense in which Bradley's Absolute is neither good nor bad is akin to the second rather than the first scenario. Though reality is neither good nor bad, the way in which these concepts fail to apply, allow and give at least some sense to the claim that it is nonetheless perfect. The ascent to perfection has been completed and, in being so, left behind.

There is an exact parallel between Bradley's approach here and that which we found in his metaphysics. In both cases our ordinary concepts do not apply to the Absolute, but the standard against which they fail, allows us to plot a higher sense, and thus give meaning to the idea that reality nonetheless possesses a perfection that transcends our concepts and our comprehension.

Reference to the metaphysical case makes it easier to avoid one potential misunderstanding. Although perfection is for Bradley something that lies at the end of a scale of increasing goodness, it differs from any notion that could be arrived at by merely reflecting upon such a scale and extending its upper ranges without limit. This can be seen in his final definition of perfection. He defines perfection as ‘a state of harmony (p.194) with pleasure’, ‘a balance of pleasure over pain’.50 At first sight this might seem to be a return to the discredited world of finite evaluations, but that this is not the case can be seen from the fact that he goes on to add that this has nothing whatsoever to do with quantity. He says, ‘If the perfect is the concordant, then no growth of its area or increase of its perfections could make it more complete.’51 What matters is not how far good outstrips evil, but the simple fact that it does. For evil is the separation of what is and what ought to be, and if that has been removed then good has been removed as well and perfection attained.

But even if we find meaning in the claim that the Absolute is perfect, what licenses us to say that it actually is? It may lie at the end of a dialectical chain of evaluative concepts, but why should it be instantiated? Again in metaphysical terms it may be the most coherent and most real of all possible entities. But why should the culmination of logic and metaphysics be also the culmination of value theory? Is not this just too convenient? Can it be proved? Bradley considers a method that would make this task very easy. In theoretical matters we have a standard (the absence of contradiction) and we assume that this standard is met. We can hardly do otherwise. But is there not also a standard for practical matters, and why can we not assume that this too is met? If we have the right to presume that reality meets the logical criteria of our theoretical thinking, have we not the same right to assume that it meets the practical criteria of our evaluative thinking?

Was this Bradley's reason for believing in the perfection of the Absolute? At first sight it might seem as though it was, for in his discussion of religion he comes close to endorsing something very like this line of thought. He argues that religion evolves of dialectical necessity out of morality.52 But, for Bradley, the main difference between them is that in religion, unlike morality, the objective is seen not merely as a goal or ideal but as something actual and already realized in the universe. Thus in saying that morality leads to religion, Bradley is giving us a kind of ontological argument, for what, in effect, he is claiming is that, at the end of the day, we cannot think of ultimate goodness as possible only.

However, while not denying that there is some necessity to this passage of thought, Bradley does not in the end consider this to be a genuine argument for the existence of God. He objects that morality and religion are practical matters, whereas the claims that reality is perfect or that God exists are metaphysical or theoretical ones. But, he urges, practical concerns are not in the business of giving descriptions, and we cannot derive descriptions from them. The ethical or religious postulation of perfection remains a moral or practical conclusion rather than a theoretical one. As a description of how things are, he therefore rejects it, concluding that the desired result ‘cannot be drawn directly from the practical criterion’.53 He says, ‘If I am theoretically not satisfied, then (p.195) what appears must in reality be otherwise; but, if I am dissatisfied practically, the same conclusion does not hold.’54

But how then does Bradley attempt to solve this problem of moving from fact to value? Although there is no direct transition to be made from logically complete to evaluatively perfect, there are, thinks Bradley, a couple of indirect transitions that can be attempted. The first is a straightforward empirical appeal. Bradley claims that, ‘In the world, which we observe, an impartial scrutiny will discover more pleasure than pain.’ He does not undertake to really justify this optimism, merely hinting that he thinks a weighting of the psychological arguments on either side would be fatal to pessimism. This idea is not explained, but presumably he believes that psychology does, or will, reveal us to be basically optimistic creatures. It would be impossible here to assess whether or not Bradley is correct in his optimism, but it is worth noting that, while he thinks that there is a balance of pleasure, he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult to estimate, and easy to exaggerate, the amount of the balance.’55 The second kind of indirect transition from fact to value is a priori. It consists in arguing that satisfaction of the theoretical or cognitive part of our being which necessarily accompanies metaphysical truth would be impossible without an accompanying satisfaction of the practical or feeling part, that ‘A true philosophy must accept and must justify every side of human nature.’56 In more detail he argues that knowledge finds rest only in that vision of reality as an harmonious whole that philosophers call the Absolute and in which there can exist no unresolved conflict or discord, but pain causes and is caused by precisely such conflict, and thus we may infer that the Absolute cannot contain an excess of pain; ‘we are forced to assume theoretical satisfaction; and to suppose that existing one-sidedly, and together with practical discomfort, appears inadmissible’.57

6.2 T.H. Green

Just as influential as Bradley in the spreading of idealist ethics was the figure of T.H. Green. It is true that his ethical system did not appear in print until 1883, several years after Bradley's, but for many years prior to that it had been making an impact in Oxford (and beyond), especially after his election to the Whyte's Professorship of Moral (p.196) Philosophy in December 1877.58 Certainly once Green's Prolegomena was in print, alongside Ethical Studies, these two books became the twin pillars of idealist ethics.

6.2.1 Motivation

As was discussed in Chapter 4, the First Book of Green's Prolegomena deals with what he calls the ‘metaphysics of knowledge’ in which he argues that nature could only be known if consciousness stood ‘outside’ it, functioning autonomously and free from its limitations. Moving on to Book Two, the essential role of this preliminary exercise in metaphysics becomes clear as this result is employed to build up his ethical system, for he argues that what holds of knowledge is paralleled by what holds of action; just as naturalism is unable to explain conscious knowledge, it is also unable to explain conscious purposive action.59 In so far as we are conscious we are free. Classical empiricism and reductionist systems of ethics, such as utilitarianism, become bound together as the twin targets of Idealism.

Green has a distinctive conception of what it is for an action to be free. He opposes any notion of freedom as indeterminism; nothing happens without a reason. The only legitimate question is what sort of reason? A free action is one brought about from within rather than imposed from without, and brought about, moreover, through conscious choice rather than blind impulse, instinct, or desire. Unmotivated willing of the later kind would make action but ‘an arbitrary freak of some unaccountable power’ and nothing to be proud or ashamed of60—‘far from free action being unmotivated, it is rather determination by motives, properly understood, that constitutes freedom’.61

But if what we choose is a function of our character and circumstances how can it be free? It all depends, argues Green,62 on how we understand the terms ‘character and circumstances’. If these are understood to be mere natural phenomena (such as animal desires, instincts, and surrounding causal contexts), events with the power to bring about behaviour, then their action must indeed destroy freedom. But the introduction of consciousness into the picture changes everything, and the threat to freedom vanishes if character and circumstance are understood instead on the idealist model. Internalized by self-consciousness, desires or appetites are transformed into ‘motives’ while the circumstances of action are those things only which are taken in by reflexive awareness and understood as the possibilities for action.63

The key point about this transition from desires and circumstances to conscious motives is that it is a transition from efficient to final causation. On the idealist model, with the introduction of self-consciousness, action is explained not by prior factors (p.197) which push from behind but by a future ideal which calls it forth. Desire in so far as it is conceived in consciousness becomes motive, as the self posits some object which would satisfy its want; but to explain something by motive or reasons is to understand it teleologically, in terms of its final as opposed to its efficient cause. And so the issues of whether or not there is a prior cause or of what kind it may be, fall away as beside the point—we move out of the realm of casual explanation altogether—and the only issue is whether or not the factors which explain the action may themselves be explained naturalistically.64 If not, whatever the underlying causal story, we can say that a person ‘exerts a free activity,—an activity which is not in time, not a link in the natural chain of becoming, which has no antecedents other than itself but is self-originated.’65 Reasoned or motivated action is only possible because we are not parts of the natural rank. Conscious desire is of a radically different order to animal desire, for in consciousness we can stand over our wants and gauge them. Ethical life is explained not historically by the forces that make us what we are but teleologically by the potential we have to become something more. In this way Green opposed any kind of view of morality as but the progressive articulation of animal instincts or sympathy, rejecting the programme of figures such as Spencer or Hume for whom to account for the moral consciousness it is enough to give a naturalistic historical description of its origins and growth.

6.2.2 Self-satisfaction

Human agency then, is to be explained in terms of motive rather than desire. Unlike the mere animal pushed from behind by some want, desire, or impulse, because they are self-conscious, human beings have the capacity in thought to transcend both the present and the actual and look forward to possible future states, thereby creating for themselves ends which they then endeavour to bring about.

Green goes on to argue that the motive determining an agent's will is always an idealized future state of his own self, a conception of himself as satisfied—whatever it may be that he seeks. For this reason, argues Green, moral action is ‘an expression at once of conscious contrast between an actual and possible self, and of an impulse to make that possible self real; or, as it is sometimes put, it is a process of self-realisation, i.e. of making a possible self real.’66 This position is clearly in line with that of Bradley—indeed it is Bradley who more commonly uses the term ‘self-realisation’; Green tends to prefer ‘self-satisfaction’67—and in historical terms their arrival at this (p.198) common formula represents an important shift in ethical thinking. Instead of asking with the utilitarian, intuitionist, and even Kantian philosophers of the day, ‘what ought I to do?’ they—and the many Idealists that followed them—re-construed ethical inquiry in the mould of an older question ‘what kind of person ought I to be?’; for this understanding of the moral ideal as a matter of developing our capacity for reason and will (where this has a social element to it as well) is highly reminiscent of the eudaimonistic tradition of Plato and Aristotle—in which both were, of course, thoroughly grounded.

The claim that all conscious purposive action seeks self-satisfaction may seem like the most ruthless psychological egoism, and in places Green appears to speak in such a fashion. Self-reflection he suggests will tell us that ‘to every action morally imputable, or of which a man can recognise himself as the author, the motive is always some idea of the man's personal good’.68 But on closer reflection we see his view is quite otherwise. Rather the derivation flows from the very definition of conscious action itself. Whatever we want, in wanting it we necessarily want also a state in which our own wanting is satisfied. There is nothing necessarily self-directed in the content of the want. This is important, for only such a derivation can explain the categorical nature of demand; the call to self-realization is universal and exceptionless. But now the formula begins to look trivial. Whatever we want, it is self-satisfaction, just because we want it. Or to put the same point another way, it is useless to say we should aim at self-realization, for there are a great number of selves we might realize—many of which might far better be left unrealized!

Content is provided, however, if we reflect further about the nature of satisfaction. Presented at first with just a sequence of wants, the self cannot be satisfied with a piecemeal approach, and ‘there arises the idea of a satisfaction on the whole’.69 The generic notion of the good is that ‘it satisfies some desire’70 but, as the idea that we might become ‘better’ than we are inevitably leads on to the idea that we might become ‘the best’ we can possibly be, so the generic notion of the good begets that of the true or unconditional good, as ‘an end in which the effort of a moral agent can really find rest’.71 It is that which fulfils the agent's desire for ‘an abiding satisfaction of an abiding self  ’,72 an idea clearly related to Bradley's injunction to be an ‘infinite whole’. Nor can satisfaction of the self simply be restricted to the satisfaction of desires, it calls for the realization of capacities. Morality demands that through right action we realize our potential. But any given act realizes our capacity only in part, a fact which (p.199) itself gives birth to the idea of our complete realization.73 We thus arrive at the conclusion that the ultimate goal must be the complete development of our potentiality; human perfection.74

If, as Green tells us, the moral ideal resides in the complete realization or perfection of human capacities, it is only natural that we should ask just what this amounts to. But here we meet an obstacle. Since our potential never yet has been perfectly realized, we cannot properly say quite what that would imply. Green's moral theory is a species of ideal or perfectionist ethics, but since our moral understanding lies in need of development just as much as our moral nature itself, a measure of ignorance is, he concludes, unavoidable. The utilitarian is content to take us as we are and uses current values to define the ideal, but as we mature so do our ideals, and hence our conception of the goal itself also must grow and develop. We cannot know now what we would want if we were better people.

Fortunately, even if it may not yet be known in full, the moral ideal may be known in part for we are not left entirely without help; we may turn to history, we may criticize prior theories and we know at least that the true good is a common good. Each of these three points will now be considered.

6.2.3 Moral development

Some of what is needed Green thought we could learn by looking at actual historical moral developments. Ethical codes change over history and, although there is no chance for us to stand outside of time and anticipate the ideal from which they all fall short, relativism is not our only alternative, for we may yet regard this history as the gradual unfolding of the divine spirit within us. Green believes that ‘the history of human character has been one in which the [eternal] consciousness has throughout been operative upon wants of animal origin, giving rise through its actions upon them to the specific quality of that history.’75 Though our potential cannot yet be known, ‘to a certain extent it has shown by actual achievement what it has in it to become, and by reflection on the so far developed activity we can form at least some negative conclusions in regard to its complete realisation’.76 A ‘subjective’ history of the moral thoughts and feelings of mankind would be hard to write, but these also exist ‘objectively’ in the norms, practices, and institutions of society,77 and when Green speaks of the historical development ‘through which human life has been so far bettered’ it is primarily these ‘institutions and useages’ he has in mind.78 History shows us ‘an actual progressive realisation of human capacities in knowledge, in art (p.200) and in social life’.79 We are bound within moral worldviews that inevitably change over time, but if we understand this as a process of evolution, perspective enough is found for the present to pass judgement on the past. Green claims, for example, that a higher moral standard is possible for the Christian than for the Greek,80 while more specifically, the 1865 abolition of slavery in the United States—about fifteen years before he wrote—would surely have stood out as another clear marker of human moral progress. History may even enable us to say something more: with the insight afforded by where we have got to so far, while we cannot tell what would be ‘best’, we can see what personal and institutional changes would make life ‘better’.

The relationship is reciprocal. Not only does history give some content to the moral ideal, but the notion of an operating moral ideal is (thinks Green) the only plausible way we have of explaining the actual facts of human moral effort.

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 short-coming, 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 no less essential unity.81

Thus for Green the idea of the supreme good is not just an ideal, something potential, but also something at work in the world, an idea which ‘has been the essential influence in the process by which man has so far bettered himself   ’ and which ‘is the condition of character and conduct being morally good’.82 For where does the idea originate that we might become better than we are, that we might even become perfect, except from the eternal consciousness within us, from the better self we already implicitly are?

At this point vital parallels emerge between Green's moral, metaphysical, and religious views. As current knowledge and the possibility of future knowledge are both explicable only on their being gradual reproductions in us of a complete vision already realized in the understanding of an eternal consciousness, likewise actual moral progress and the possibility of future development is ultimately explicable only as the self-reproduction in us of a divine life already enjoying the perfection after which we strive. Both of these stories may in their turn be understood from a religious point of view, for in both cases the historical development may be seen as the progressive realization in the temporal realm of the eternal spirit of God. As knowledge advances we come more and more to think the thoughts of God, while through moral progress we gradually bring about the kingdom of heaven. It could be complained that Green (p.201) replaced religion with science and ethics, but looking at it the other way it could just as well be approved that on his system one's intellectual and ethical contribution to society becomes elevated to a form of divine service.83

6.2.4 Intuitionism, utilitarianism, and Kantianism

We get some further idea of what Green thought the true good would consist in by considering his criticisms of some alternative theories. Green rejects as false and unnecessary the intuitionist assumption of any special moral sense or faculty. The way in which we discover ethical truth—what ought to be—is the same as that in which we discover metaphysical truth—what ultimately is—namely, reason (where this is understood in a broad sense to cover the full range of human cognitive powers, not simply the narrow and formal manipulation of concepts). To suppose otherwise that we have some special ability (intuition) to make moral judgements without deriving them deductively or inductively from others is to undermine the unity of knowledge and of the moral agent. It is not some part of our mind or part of ourselves that feels and acts morally. An act of will is an expression of the whole person.84

Utilitarianism, the main contemporary rival, fares no better. Green objects that we seek many goals quite other than pleasure and often we seek that which will give us no pleasure at all.85 Nor can the mere pursuit of pleasure explain the imperative we feel, instead of seeking satisfaction in whatever currently attracts us the most, to try to become better human beings with more worthy desires.86 The standard rejoinder to points like these—that the attainment of any such goal is still a pleasure to us—rests on a confusion exploded long ago by Butler, argues Green.87 The fact that satisfaction or pleasure inevitably accompany the achieving of any end does not imply that pleasure is the original object of desire. To be sure, attainment of what is good gives pleasure, but it yields pleasure because we think it good, not vice versa.88 It is not that first we want pleasure and so seek a source, for something is only a source of pleasure because we first want that thing itself. To a degree Mill understood this, but the changes he introduced to accommodate it (the notion of higher pleasure, and the notion of pleasure as a complex whole with many diverse parts) amount to the ‘virtual surrender’ of utilitarianism.89

Moreover, the ideal proposed by hedonism is an impossible one. We are pleasure seekers and so ought to maximize pleasure, we are told, but ‘a sum of pleasures is not a pleasure’.90 It is not something we could ever enjoy, or coherently aim at as a goal. Echoing Bradley's objection,91 Green complains that pleasures follow one another in a (p.202) series and, even if they may be added in thought, there is no means in reality of accumulating and experiencing them as a whole. A.E. Taylor objected to this argument suggesting that no experience ever really perishes—everything that we feel as well as everything that we think and do leaves a residue or deposit that enters into all subsequent experience92—but even if no experience is ever done with, it is still never enjoyed as a whole. The sum of its pleasure is still always spread out across time.

Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics offers a very different species of utilitarianism to that of Mill, but appeared too late for Bradley in his Ethical Studies to engage in any detailed criticism.93 Green is not so handicapped, and tackles Sidgwick head on in the final chapter of the Prolegomena.94 He admits that universalistic hedonism cannot be charged with confusing the object of the desire and the pleasure we anticipate from attaining it, that it is a doctrine of the disinterested pursuit of pleasure, but he argues that in practical terms it is weaker than the theory of human perfection. For where we are thinking of departing from common practice or resisting personal inclination, it is hard to estimate whether this would increase or decrease universal pleasure, and the goal of promoting happiness cannot be translated into any specific claim to be or do anything in particular, a difficulty that is much less where the promotion of human excellences and virtues is taken as an end in itself.95

In his Preface to the 1906 edition of the Prolegomena Edward Caird describes Green's position as a modification of Kant's,96 and certainly Green's ethics is in many ways close to that of the Critical Philosophy. Like Kant, Green regards ethical obligation as flowing from the very nature of conscious action and independent of our particular desires, as something categorical or applicable to all rational beings.

But Green also finds problems with Kant's ethics. The difficulties (it must be allowed) lie not so much in the system itself as in his statement of it97—‘though his doctrine is essentially true, his way of putting it’ is defective98—but they are nonetheless serious. He rejects what he describes as Kant's view than man has a two-fold nature and a two-fold causality; a moral self and a sensuous self; a self on the one hand intelligible, noumenal, and free, and a self on the other hand sensible, phenomenal, and determined. Since all we are acquainted with is the latter, complains Green, Kant's doctrine amounts to an admission of utter ignorance about the true self and its connection with the world. In knowing actions as they present themselves to us, we known them as ‘they really are not.’99 Moreover, in ruling out desire as a motive he rules out just what makes actions valuable, as well as rendering (p.203) them psychologically impossible.100 For Green, duty need not be independent of all desire, only of natural pre-conscious pre-deliberative desire. Insofar as desire is rational and conscious it has a place in ethics. Kant's mistake is to assume there is no alternative between determination by natural desire for pleasure, and determination by abstract contemplation of the moral law; for we often in all consciousness desire things other than pleasure.101 Green's case against Kant's ‘two-worlds’ view is strong, but of course, he faces his own (not so very different) problem of how to relate together his two ‘worlds’ of cause and of motive; and just as he struggles to explain exactly how the eternal consciousness relates to historical knowledge, a deep puzzle remains as to how his world of ‘free’ action relates to the causal world which underlies and indeed expresses it.

As did Bradley, Green complains also that in refusing any appeal to experience, the Kantian idea of duty is but an ‘empty abstraction, an idea of nothing in particular to be done’.102 Kant focuses solely on the form of the motive—to do our duty—without regard to its content—whatever object it is that we will. Taken strictly this would lead to the complete ‘paralysis of the will’.103 And what can be meant by calling such an abstraction a ‘law’, where it is neither enforced by some superior power nor describes the actual course of phenomena?104

As a further criticism, Green objects that in concentrating wholly on motive, Kant makes the error of too much ignoring the consequences of action.105 Ascertaining the right course for action is certainly more than a calculus of possible outcomes, but neither should they be utterly ignored. For as long as we take a full view of the matter, ‘There is no real reason to doubt that the good or evil in the motive of an action is exactly measured by the good or evil in its consequences.’ Appearance to the contrary—appearance, that is, of good action resulting from bad intentions or vice versa—is but the result of the limited view we take of both motive and consequences.106 A wider view may show us to be more instruments than agents, and the value of what we may do may change with our perspective.

Comments such as these have encouraged some to think of Green, while certainly not a hedonist, as perhaps still a consequentialist.107 And in specifying a goal of action—human perfection—Green would seem to be putting forward a variety of teleological ethics. But if so, the teleology is Aristotelian not consequentialist. Though they are our goals, self-realization and the common good are not things to be aggregated or maximized; that everyone has absolute value as an end never a means (p.204) acts as a prior moral constraint on any goal,108 and the failing of utilitarianism is that it cannot absolutely rule out the oppression of the weak by the strong or the few by the many.109 Moreover, like Kant, Green stresses the absolute importance of motives. This is vital, not just for freedom, but also for the very value of an action. Ethics is founded on the distinction between the good and bad will;110 it consists in ‘the imposition…of rules requiring something to be done irrespectively of any inclination to do it, irrespectively of any desired end’.111 ‘The one unconditional good is the good will’,112 he allows, for the motive not merely determines the act, it ‘is the act on its inner side.’113 Two actions alike in moral effects (consequences) could nonetheless differ in the moral character they represent.114

But is this not contradictory? In measuring value must we not choose between assessing intentions or assessing outcomes, between the deontology of Kant and the teleology of Hegel? Surely value cannot (without ambiguity) indiscriminately reflect both of these? Green however rejects this forced choice between an ethics of agency and an ethics of result. To insist on a choice between them implies a clear separation between the will to achieve and the goal to be achieved, but where the goal itself is human perfection that can never quite be the case; ‘when we are giving an account of an agent whose development is governed by an idea of his own perfection, we cannot avoid speaking of one and the same condition of will alternately as means and as end’.115 Our effort to realize the good is itself also part of the good we try to realize, so that in circular fashion right effort is that aimed at perfection, while perfection is what right effort aims at. The good we seek is precisely to do or be good. But rather than ‘an illogical procedure’, this is, suggests Green, ‘the only procedure suited to the matter in hand’. ‘It means that such an ideal, not yet realised but operating as a motive, already constitutes in man an inchoate form of that life, that perfect development of himself, of which the completion would be the realised ideal itself.’116

6.2.5 The common good

The last point which helps Green to define more substantively his moral ideal—providing content to what would otherwise remain a merely formal notion—is perhaps the most important of all. Transforming the seemingly individualistic doctrine of self-satisfaction into something almost directly its opposite, Green argues that while it is indeed true that the moral ideal is one of personal development, it needs to be recognized that people are fundamentally social creatures, and hence that our true personal good properly understood turns out to be a common or social good. ‘Finding (p.205) our own pleasures and pains dependent on the pleasures and pains of others, we form the idea of a satisfaction of self which includes the satisfaction of others, not simply as a means to our own pleasure, but as ends in themselves deserving their own satisfaction’,117 for ‘man cannot contemplate himself as in a better state, or on the way to the best, without contemplating others, not merely as a means to that better state, but as sharing it with him’.118 Our goal—‘the perfection of human character’—spelled out, is seen to be ‘a perfection of individuals which is also that of society, and of society which is also that of individuals’.119 In addition to—indeed as part of—our interests in ourselves we have interests in other persons, such that our own good is really part of something wider than us; ‘the idea of an absolute and a common good; a good common to the person conceiving it with others, and good for him and them, whether at any moment it answers their likings or no.’120

This doctrine that the true good is a common one (the common good) does away with the age-old distinction and conflict between egoism and altruism. It is an idea which ‘does not admit of the distinction between good for self and good for others’.121 It renders the distinction between benevolence and reasonable self-love ‘a fiction of philosophers’.122 To pursue a selfish life is to misunderstand one's own true nature and hence where one's own true happiness lies.

Unpacking this idea further we may note three senses in which the common good is ‘common’. It is thought (for example, by some relativists) that there are as many different conceptions of the good as there are individuals who seek it, with no way to choose between them. But this (to introduce our first sense) was not Green's view. He believes, whatever the differences in what we seem to seek—the result of our varying times, cultures, and temperaments—and whatever the differences in the degree to which we recognize it, that at bottom we are all led by a shared ideal standard of the good; a mutual sense of what is needed to bring about ultimate human satisfaction: ‘the true good is a good for all men, and good for them all in virtue of the same nature and capacity’.123 But even if all people have the same ultimate ends, these may be incompatible. If we both want to win, or if we both want great power and influence, we may find ourselves in competition. And here we find a second thing Green means to deny. The common good ‘is common to all men in the proper sense,—in the sense, namely, that there can be no competition for its attainment between man and man’.124 Distinguishing between the ‘good things of the soul’ and the ‘good things of the body’,125 we see at once that what we seek must be a spiritual good, since material goods will always be scarce and so potential sources of conflict. The good (as we noted above) is something to be or do, not something to possess. But even if we all have the same harmonious goals, these may only run in parallel. There is, for example, no conflict in knowledge—your knowing something in no way prevents my doing so— (p.206) but the pursuit of knowledge may be a solitary affair. This kind of value too Green wishes to reject, bringing us to the third and strongest sense of common good; that of a unique goal for all members of society, a single project in which we are all involved. Isaiah Berlin famously argued that there can be no one good but only a plurality of conflicting ones,126 and many have thought him correct. But it should be remembered that Green's identical task upon which all are embarked need not prescribe identical roles for all—the case may be more like an orchestra where the aim is to combine many different activities harmoniously together into one whole.127 This is how Green would regard that joint venture to which we are all committed, a multi-stranded creation which we could regard either as the perfection of human nature or the realization of God.

It will be asked what Green thinks entitles him to make this astounding claim? At times he seems to present the matter as a straightforwardly empirical truth. A little reflection on human nature or history will reveal to us that we just are creatures who need each other to flourish. We are all possessed of what Hume called ‘sympathy’. Green's argument here needs to be carefully understood, as he himself is very aware. ‘It may seem unphilosophical now-a-days to accept this distinctive social interest on our part as a primary fact, without attempting to account for it by any process of evolution’,128 he admits; and he does not even wish to deny—indeed he thinks it most likely—that this associative tendency has an instinctive base, or as he puts it an ‘animal origin’.129 But, he insists, no causal account of our behaviour could explain its moral status, for animals, however cooperative their behaviour, are not moral. The point is rather that such feelings, ‘through their presence in a self-conscious soul’,130 become transformed into a conscious goal. We are not bound to our animal past, but it is a plain fact that when we take serious review of our goals, we see that not only do we need the help of others to be happy, we need the happiness of others to be happy.

In a slightly different line of thought, Green suggests that it is our desire for a more permanent or stable kind of satisfaction that calls us to pursue a common good. Man pursues his desires, but as Schopenhauer noted, there is a certain futility in seeking to meet a desire which as soon as it is met morphs either into boredom or the desire for something else. If thus reflecting on the transitory nature of our pleasures and desires, we ask ourselves ‘what can satisfy the self which abides throughout and survives those desires’,131 the thought of ourselves as permanent gives rise the ‘idea of a social good—of a good not private to the man himself, but good for him as a member of a community’.132 Rather as short strands of wool fibre are spun together into a (p.207) continuous thread, the ever-changing and short-lived self, by interweaving its own with other equally transient contributors, becomes part of something larger that is both constant and enduring—at first perhaps the family line, but then spreading out to the wider school or college tradition, the community, the nation, the religion, or the species. The idea of ourselves as permanent is always the idea of ourselves as social. As private individuals we change all the time. Our appearance, our knowledge, our feelings, our desires, none of it is constant; not least because the world is always changing around us. Only in so far as our self is defined by a wider framework—in so far as we stand as a member of some family, profession, nation, or religion—is there any constancy in us. And of course such wholes continue after our death. Our identity is given in part by our interests, but insofar as our interests are identified with those of a wider body to which we belong, their pursuit and thus our identity continues after death. ‘It is this association,’ argues Green, ‘that neutralises the effect which the anticipation of death must otherwise have on the demand for permanent good.’133 This idea we have already encountered in John Caird's notion of ‘corporate immortality’.134

But perhaps Green's strongest argument for the common good is one about psychological development. We may set the good as self-development, but it must be recognized that selfhood or personality can only develop in a social setting. ‘Society is the condition of the development of a personality’.135 In ourselves we are only potential people. That potentiality is never realized until we live in society. Sociality is the precondition for even being a person.

Social life is to personality what language is to thought. Language presupposes thought as a capacity, but in us the capacity of thought is only actualised in language. So human society presupposes persons in capacity—subjects capable each of conceiving himself and the bettering of his life as an end to himself—but it is only in the intercourse of men, each recognised by each as an end, not merely a means, and thus as having reciprocal claims, that the capacity is actualised and that we really live as persons.136

Green's claim here is that of the fundamentally social nature of the self, the same thesis Bradley urged in ‘My Station and its Duties’. Each of us, from the first, argues Green, finds ourselves ‘existing in manifold relations to nature and other persons’, and ‘these relations form the reality of the self   ’.137 The individual in whom we are interested ‘is not an empty or abstract self   ’ but one affected ‘by manifold interests, among which are interests in other people’.138 Indicative of this is Green's notion of conscience; however individual to us it may seem, it is in reality a social voice.139 But (to return to the common good) if people only come to exist in concert with others, the same must be (p.208) said of their satisfaction. If our very being is not some private possession, but a joint stock, its fulfilment too must be judged something public rather than something exclusive.

The individualism or selfishness of great figures like Napoleon or Caesar might be thought to count against Green's argument here, but even characters such as these, he argues, rather than counterexamples, are a reflection of their times—for ‘what we call egoistic motives do not act without direction from an involuntary reference to social good’.140 For example, the personal glory they seek cannot be understood wholly without reference to what those they rule consider to advance the nation; no one ever became celebrated for running a country into the ground.

Reciprocity is the chief characteristic of the relationship between men and the society ‘which is at once constituted by them and makes them what they are’;141 and therefore, set alongside this holistic vision developed above, it is important to note also Green's strong insistence that the ‘ultimate standard of worth is an ideal of personal worth’.142 For Green, apart from embodiment in individual personalities, larger notions such as ‘nation’ or ‘humanity’ are mere abstractions. Likewise the notion of ‘spiritual progress’ means nothing unless manifested in individual lives.143 The goal is one that must be realized in persons, and no goal could ever be accepted requiring their ‘extinction’—even by absorption into something greater.144 This last point would seem to rule out any understanding of the Absolute or eternal consciousness as something in which finite minds are lost or absorbed.

6.3 Edward Caird

Insofar as it is known today, the idealist ethic of social self-realization is associated with the names of T.H. Green and F.H. Bradley. However, to these two figures needs to be added a third, contemporaneous with them, and equally important as one of the ‘founding fathers’ of this style of ethics. This was Edward Caird. Though every bit as important as Green and Bradley, Caird's role in this story has been eclipsed—his name now remembered mainly in connection with philosophy of religion and philosophy of literature. But much of his earliest and most original work was in Moral Philosophy—of which subject, indeed, he was the professor at Glasgow University.

As was noted in the first chapter, the rise of British Idealism coincided with the rise of professionalism in academia, one aspect of which was the creation of a new class of (p.209) university teacher. This change provides a useful yardstick against which to compare our three philosophers. For, from this point of view, Bradley belongs squarely to the old world. After graduation, he was awarded a fellowship at Merton College without any teaching duties whatsoever, and even within Oxford became something of a recluse. It was through his writing that he became widely known and influential. Green straddled the age; his Prolegomena and his two lay sermons were publications as celebrated and influential as Bradley's, but he was equally important as a teacher, profoundly influencing a generation of Oxford men. Caird by contrast belonged to the new world: his influence was almost entirely as a teacher. As such it was real, but not of the kind to remain visible in later years. For unlike Bradley or Green, he left no single ethical monograph.145 Other than buried deep within a series of reviews and in his discussions of other philosophers, his ethical ideas lived only through his students.146

So what were Caird's ethical views? Although he never produced a book on moral philosophy, careful examination of the works which he did publish in the 1860s, 1870s and early 1880s, together with previously unpublished materials, allow us to form a clear enough picture of his position. We may begin with a very early essay ‘Reform and the Reformation’ most probably submitted in 1866 as part of his application for the Glasgow Chair.

6.3.1 The evolution of ethical understanding

Caird's worldview emphasizes to an extreme something present to a degree in all British Idealist thought, indeed, in late nineteenth-century thought generally, the notion of change. The world in which we find ourselves is not fixed or static but in constant flux; its dynamic, moreover, not formless and random, but marked by distinctive and intelligible laws and productive of a developmental progress or evolution. Like it or not, recognize it or not (and more often we do not, for, as much as anything else, our vision is a product of the context in which it occurs), everything is caught up in streams larger than itself, making its own contribution in the forward movement of the wider whole. Only through the lens of history can the pattern be discerned, and only as the servants of history can we ever achieve anything: ‘man cannot create; all his success is dependent upon his striking in with mighty agencies already at work. His highest effort is to place himself directly in the path of some irresistible law, and then let himself be borne forward by it to the certain execution of his purpose.’147

(p.210) This idea has already been explored with regard to religion and to the history of philosophy, and it may be found no less at work in ethics, argues Caird, for history reveals a continued development of what he variously calls ‘moral experience’, ‘moral life’, the ‘spiritual consciousness of the race’, the ‘great consciousness of humanity’, the ‘moral progress of humanity’, or ‘the moral world which is built up by the actions of men’.148 Our first question must be to ask just what he means by this miscellany of vague terms, for their import is hardly clear. He is not thinking here, at least not primarily, of moral codes—don't kill, don't lie, don't steal, etc.—for Caird admits that these have remained relatively static, the common possession of all nations and times. However, he presses, ‘Morality is not exhausted by such vague abstractions: but consists rather in the manner in which these are united with life’.149 This is not much clearer, but it includes at least two things between which he slides a little too easily for comfort. In part he is talking about moral understanding, about that which would be considered in a history of moral philosophy. For our understanding of the meaning, nature, and significance of our moral codes may change over time even if the codes themselves do not. But the separation between these two is not complete, and he is talking also about our actual values and attitudes themselves. For any given time or culture will have its own ethical flavour or perspective, from the Greek worldview through medievalism or the Restoration to fin de siècle Europe or the Swinging Sixties. The primary evidence for such shifts in moral outlook lies in the organization of society and its institutions, and in the general behaviour of individuals. And this too would seem to be an important element of Caird's meaning.

History moves for Caird in a broadly dialectical sequence; that is to say his historical reconstructions all take the form of one position whose flaws give way to its opposite, whose reciprocal flaws generate a kind of synthesis of whatever is of enduring value in each of them. To tell any story in this way carries a sense of completion, but Caird insists that the end point of any one sequence can only be the start of a new one. One might object then that nothing is achieved, that history only moves in circles, but Caird insists that the movement is better viewed as a spiral; we pass again and again over the same ground but each time we do so it is at a higher level.150 Dialectical completion does not entail the completion of history.

As has already been noted, for Green ethics is a matter of the eternal consciousness' gradual reproduction or realization of itself in the life of the individual and in the history of humanity, and Bradley too presents an explicitly developmental ethics; in cultural-historical, in individual, and in philosophical terms. Caird's view is in (p.211) fundamental harmony with these, but while in both Green and Bradley the moves are cautious—we find only tentative historical interpretations and an unwillingness to say what ‘complete self-development’ or ‘ideal morality’ might amount to—by contrast, Caird is not so shy, arguing that we can use the idea of progress, ‘not only as a key to the history of the past, but also to determine, in outline at least, the idea of moral perfection’.151 Such boldness, of course, lays him least open of the three to charges of relativism, but conversely most susceptible to charges of complacency and conservatism; for too often he writes as though liberal rational Christianity or the discrete nation state represent the very culmination of human intellectual and social development.

6.3.2 The dialectic of freedom

If ethical life evolves, what drives it to do so, and in what direction does it proceed? For Caird the answer to these two connected questions lies in the fact that human nature—at least as it is given to us—is something divided, an antagonism of opposing forces in which we cannot rest and which continually drives us on until we can overcome it. We are creatures out of kilter with ourselves, pushed onwards until we can find—which is for Caird but to restore—the harmony of our true selves.152 What is this dualism that afflicts us? Again Caird is hard to pin down and one is tempted to complain that the fluidity of his thought gets the better of him. He describes the division as one between the actual and the ideal, between our lower and higher nature, between the flesh and the spirit, between what we are and what we could or ought to be—all phrases too general to bite. But even where Caird is more specific than that, we find that he runs together several dualisms that philosophers today would feel happier to keep separate. In his writings it possible to pull out what seem to be really three different versions of the story.

In one of its earliest versions, in his 1866 lecture ‘Ethical Philosophy’, the story gets played in explicitly historical terms as the long search for ‘the true idea of freedom’.153 In this, of course, Caird is following Hegel who, in his introduction to the Philosophy of History, says that world history is nothing but the progressive development of the self-awareness of freedom.154 Caird argues that, because the ancient Greeks had no concept of universal human nature in general, they were unable to grasp the true significance of freedom; for them it was simply a privilege that law gave to some and not to others. Only with the emergence of Christianity could the real problem of ethics be grasped: (p.212) with all men created by, and equal before, God, it became possible to see clearly the gap between what we all ideally are and what we actually find ourselves to be, and in consequence to appreciate the real significance of freedom—to appreciate that man must be free because he has a moral destiny to fulfil. The need to be free from the determining influence of the external world led some to withdraw from it, for example, into the cloister,155 but most were not so quiescent. Luther, in setting individual faith against Church authority, was one of the first to really fight for freedom, but it was a principle he took only so far, and what the German reformation whispered the French Revolution shouted. Raising us above consciousness of self as merely a natural being, a bundle of desires and powers, the development of self-understanding in terms of ‘the rights of man’ was a necessary step in the development of morality, but not the final step. For in replacing external authority with unfettered internal licence, with all the horrors that led to, what the French Revolution failed to see was ‘that the true freedom is not freedom from law, but from ourselves’.156 The lesson that must be learned, says Caird, is to take the obstacles to freedom, and neither running from them nor blindly opposing them, to learn how to use and transform them into agencies for our own moral growth. How can this be done? We need to learn to re-envision our relations to the world, and especially to the people, around us. ‘If we regard ourselves as mere atoms, having an existence and a happiness apart from all relations with men and things into which we have been brought, these relations will seem to us so many fetters upon our liberty.’157 But this atomic conception of self is unreal; we do not exist except through these relations and have no worth without them. We realize our freedom precisely by developing our relations with others; and what seems a barrier is in fact an opportunity for growth and liberty. From family, to society, to race, to the greatest whole of them all, God, we cannot escape our part in the larger organic unity to which we belong; but, accepting it, recognizing that it is in us as much as it is outside us, it ceases to be a yoke and becomes the very liberty we seek. ‘The freedom that struggles against social necessity, must ultimately discover that it is only in the social organism that the individual can be really free.’158 True liberty is not unconstrained carte blanche, but neither does it consist in slavish obedience to the rules or norms of the society in which we find ourselves; the best life combines ‘social unity with independence’.159

Caird's analysis here was influential, and explicitly followed by, for example, Henry Jones in his Idealism as a Practical Creed.160 But it is also interesting to compare the conception of freedom developed in this essay with that of Green and Bradley. Green (p.213) too distinguishes between freedom, understood as simply the exemption from compulsion by others, and a higher, real, or positive sense of freedom, the ability to find an abiding satisfaction of our true selves—a process which Green argues is necessarily social.161 In a similar vein Bradley argues that since nothing could be wholly free from external influence, the freedom we seek, rather than a mere absence, is something positive, the power of self-assertion. But even the glutton or drunkard expresses themselves and so we must add that it is only in so far as we express our true self that we are free.162 And our true self Bradley tells us is our social self.163 Other people, rather than a curb on freedom, are our great chance to acquire it.

6.3.3 The dialectic of egoism and altruism

The dialectic between ‘external constraints’ and ‘infinite caprice’164 is not the only way to recount ‘the moral significance of history’.165 Another popular way would be in terms of the distinction between egoism and altruism, for it is tempting to see moral advance as the progressive triumph of altruism over egoism. Such we might think is the message of the Kantian philosophy in its insistence that we replace action motivated by natural desire (which, Kant thinks, is necessarily always self-interested) with that done in accordance with duty (whose essence is universalizability). Something similar may be found in Comte who argues that the natural development of human nature is one in which egoism is transcended by altruism. And even a philosopher like Sidgwick thinks that reason leads us to pass from an unacceptable ethical hedonism to a doctrine of universal benevolence.

There are, thinks Caird, two flaws with this picture. In the first place, altruism, for all its importance, cannot in itself provide us with a coherent ethical goal. Unbridled egoism may lead to a ‘war of all against all’, but if altruism is the giving up of our happiness in order to secure the happiness of others, the reign of universal altruism would simply replace one struggle with another; ‘a struggle of all and each to surrender to each other the finite goods of life, instead of a struggle to retain them.’166 The familiar and embarrassing struggle in a restaurant when each person insists on paying for the meal.

The mistake stems from a second flaw, from a failure to properly think through just what is involved in the overcoming of egoism. This we can see, argues Caird, in the case of each philosopher mentioned above. Since Comte (like Hume) sharply separates (p.214) desire and reason, for him the transition from egoism to altruism is one brought about by natural evolution, not through the intervention of reason. But, argues Caird, in his extended critique of the positivist system first published in a series of papers in 1879, such a transition makes no sense without reason or self-consciousness,167 for where there is no explicit sense of ego or non-ego, there can be neither egoism nor altruism in the first place.168 We must distinguish between appetite in its natural state existing in an animal not conscious of itself which, however it is directed, cannot really be either selfish or unselfish, and the same impulse which in the light of reason appears to us as conscious desire or motivation. Our impulses, says Caird, ‘in becoming combined with self-consciousness…are changed as by a chemical solvent, which dissolves and renews them’.169 Thus only through reason may egoism be over-thrown, but the same reason will never allow us to settle for so simplistic and confrontational a picture. Thus taken up and utterly transmuted by conscious thought, reason can no longer let egoism and altruism stand as bare unanalysed impulses, they are entered on a process of analysis that ends in their dissolution. ‘The progressive triumph of altruism over egoism, which constitutes the moral significance of history, is only the result of the fact that an individual, who is also a conscious self, cannot find his happiness in his own individual life, but only in the life of the whole to which he belongs. A selfish life is for such a being a contradiction.’170 In other words, taken up into reason itself, we see that neither motive can thrive without the other, that self and not-self are two different sides of our single self-conscious nature, which must be developed reciprocally. The individual self-fulfilment we seek is not something set against the good of others, but something to be found only by submerging oneself in the life of others.

Sidgwick is more willing to allow that the process which brings about the switch from egoism to altruism might be a rational one, but even he has not properly understood that process complains Caird, in an 1875 review of The Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick suggests that reason must prompt a universalization of desire, a recognition that what we seek for ourselves we should seek for all beings, but really this is to make the very same mistake as Comte, for Sidgwick fails to see that the determination of our desires by the rational conscious self ‘must entirely change the character of these desires’. The mere generalization of natural desire would produce nothing more than Carlyle's universal ‘Paradise of Pigwash’ but in fact the process is one in which these natural impulses are determined ‘first by the idea of self, and then by the idea of a self that is social, that finds itself in losing itself in the life of others’.171 In other words, reason, in coming to recognize both the self and the not-self, cannot then rest with any (p.215) partial conception of this dichotomy, but must press on to see their essential relativity and the impossibility of any ultimate opposition between them.

The answer to the problem of egoism does not lie in ‘altruism’, for sacrifice of one's self to another ‘offers no real deliverance from the prison of individuality’ says Caird in his second book on the philosophy of Kant;172 ‘it would not take us beyond the negation of our immediate selves to the conception of a higher common self in which we are really united.’173 Instead we must sacrifice the individual to the wider social whole. And yet (laments Caird) this ‘higher altruism’ remains unavailable to Kant for whom selves are permanently external to one another.

Once again, what Caird is arguing here is closely comparable with what Green and Bradley say on the same subject. As was shown above, to Green, one's own true good is a common good which simply does not divide up into good-for-self and good-for-others, undermining the very contrast between egoism and altruism. Bradley opposes the doctrine of psychological egoism or ‘universal selfishness’,174 but at a deeper level he too rejects (as ‘mere reckless theorizing’175) any simple view of the struggle to become moral—the war between the ‘bad self   ’ and the ‘good self   ’—as just a conflict between our egoistic and altruistic tendencies; for all such desires can be steered in either healthy or unhealthy directions,176 and it is certainly not true that the good self is just the social self. It was necessary to pass, it should be recalled, from the unqualified sociality of ‘My Station and its Duties’ to the more nuanced stance of ‘Ideal Morality’. Instead, he presents a reconstruction of the psychological and moral development of self according to which the ‘egoistic’ grows seamlessly into the ‘altruistic’. The child first finds affirmation in its own sensations, then in external objects, then in other people.177 The development of the ‘bad self   ’ occurs through a kind of disruption to this process whereby the agent seeks to affirm itself in aims and objects both disharmonious and opposed to the good.178

6.3.4 The dialectic of naturalism and rationalism

A third framework which Caird uses to tell basically the same tale, sets out the dichotomy as one between what we might call empirical naturalism and transcendent rationalism. On one telling of it, the story of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is that of the growth of materialistic naturalism; a rise which, with its attendant determinism, was rapidly felt to be the gravest threat to ethics. If human beings are nothing more than animals with desires which fall under natural law then value—what ought to (p.216) be as against what is—seems as impossible as the free will necessary to bring it about. If Green's target in this regard was Hume, Caird zeros in on Comte; for Comte too contrasts our heart and our head, our instinct and our intellect, and sees the former as the real force behind human action; something which he consequently regards as wholly determined by natural forces.

Against this naturalism Caird sets the Kantian position. Kant agrees that desire as a natural force leaves no scope for freedom but, opposing reason to desire, argues that we are not merely natural creatures, and that human action may in fact be determined by reason. Rejecting the liberty of indifference in favour of a conception of freedom as self-determination, Kant identifies the willing self with the reasoning self, which allows him to see action occasioned by reason as autonomous and free in contrast to that occasioned by desire which is heteronomous and unfree.

But this is not the happy solution to our troubles it first might seem. For in lifting the rational self-conscious subject right out of the world of objects, in not allowing it to be determined by the sensitive side of human nature, Kant renders mysterious its supposed capacity to bring about action. Surely pure intelligence cannot motivate at all. To deal with this problem, Kant talks as though our passion supplies the maxims for action which reason then tests for adequacy. But, as he himself has set up the terms of the problem, such a taking up of natural desires as maxims by rational self-consciousness looks like some sort of a relapse into heteronomy of the will,179 for ‘when [the self] admits into its motives the determination of its sensitive being, it is submitting to a foreign yoke, and by its own activity making itself a slave’.180

Caird proceeds to offer a diagnosis and solution to Kant's problem; a third step in this dialectical opposition between naturalism and rationalism. He presents it as something implicit in Kantianism, a continuation of its underlying direction and something Kant himself was close to saying. We might prefer to regard it as Caird's own positive contribution to ethical philosophy. But to insist on a choice between these two is to misunderstand his own way of working, which was always historical.181

Central to Kant's system is the sharp dualism he draws between the rational and the non-rational sides of our nature. And in so far as it permits him to see that naturalism is inadequate to express our full nature, that separation, allows Caird, is a strength in his system. But the strength becomes a weakness when he draws the contrast so sharply that it prevents him from seeing that the distinction is one which in the end, at the highest levels, must be dissolved.182 Although consciousness of self as active is distinguished from consciousness of self as determined by natural desires, it at the same time (p.217) implies it.183 Consciousness cannot be absolutely alien to its desires any more than the knowing self can be absolutely alien to the things it knows. The antagonism of desire and duty can only be understood in relation to a unity which combines them both.184 The rational self is not determined by its desires, but neither is it determined in plain opposition to them, rather (recognizing that they are not in the last analysis foreign to it) it realizes itself through them. The key to understanding this lies in the distinction, already looked at in connection with altruism and egoism, between appetite and desire. Rendered conscious appetite becomes desire, and there are two important points to note about this transition.

Kant was suspicious of natural drives and urges as a kind of heteronomy, some sort of external imposition on the rational will, but where those forces are rendered conscious, this danger disappears. In so far as we are reflexively aware of it, the animal impulse becomes a motive of self-realization; we identify ourselves with the object of desire. Rather than simply desiring a given thing we desire to be a person whose life is qualified by that thing. This is very clearly set out in the 1875 review of Sidgwick: ‘desire, so far as it is determined by the rational nature of man, implies a sense of defect of that to which, at the same time, the self is regarded as necessarily related, and without which its existence is incomplete; it implies, in short, self-identification with an object.’185 In this way, rather than some heteronomous imposition on the self, our desire becomes an expression of free self-realization.

The second point to note concerns the content of such desire. Contra Kant, Caird argues that reason is in fact able to generate a goal for itself that is not merely formal. He suggests that, paralleling the way in which in the Transcendental Deduction the self finds its own unity in the phenomenal world, from the practical side of things the self may find itself in the notion of how the world ought to be. As in creating the phenomenal world it is simultaneously creating itself, so in realizing the moral world it is realizing its own true self.186 If we ask what this amounts to, again Caird (generously) thinks that Kant was nearly there; this time in his doctrine of the Kingdom of Ends. In its first appearance, the self-conscious self-determining individual may seem a merely formal universality, nothing but the negation of the particular. But on deeper investigation this abstraction from particularity turns out to be ‘the transition from the individual to the social self-consciousness’.187 The desired universality is found not by simple negation of the individual, but by its immersion in a wider whole. We abstract from our own particularity, not into some empty formalism, but into the truer universality of a community to which our particular existence is subordinate. Such a universality, argues Caird, is concrete and gives content to the moral life.

(p.218) This picture of a social self as the synthesis able to mediate between the directionless particularity of hedonism, and the barren universalism of Kant, is clearly one that closely parallels both Bradley and Green's presentation of the matter. ‘My Station and its Duties’ is quite explicitly a synthesis between the excessive particularism of ‘Pleasure for Pleasure's sake’ and the excessive universalism of ‘Duty for Duty's sake’. While Green too, we saw, works to find a path between these two. In the end, for all his disagreement, Green remains close to Kant—closer than Bradley—but not even Green goes so far as does Caird to suggest that the answer is present all along in Kant. Nor (it should be said) is this the most plausible element of Caird's case.

6.3.5 Social holism

It will not, of course, have escaped attention that in all three versions of the dichotomy which Caird finds to beset human nature, the story of dialectical salvation is one that propels us towards a form of social holism, towards a recognition that human nature, and thus human fulfilment, must be understood in fundamentally social terms. For Caird, as (of course) for Green and Bradley, the life of the individual set against the whole must give way to the life of the individual for and in the whole.188 The phrase Caird most commonly uses to characterize this phenomena is ‘die to live’, and it is so important—he claims, for example, that it gathers up the Hegelian philosophy in a sentence189—that we should stop a moment to consider it. It comes of course from Christianity, from the promise of Christ that he who loses his life will in fact find it.190 Caird seems to use it in at least three different ways. For him, it means death to sin, to flesh, to the world, and it also means death to selfishness, the end of self-concern, the step of giving one's life to God. These two are ‘ethical’ points, but there is a third deeper ‘metaphysical’ issue about identity; for Caird reads it also as saying that we must give up our superficial or apparent self to find our deeper or real self. If we hold on to the atomic self we cannot progress, but if we can let it go, we find not its destruction but an altogether higher level of being within the social whole. Adapting Tillich's ‘God beyond God’ notion we might speak here of ‘the self beyond self   ’.191

(p.219) 6.4 The popularization of idealist ethics

That together the systems of Bradley, Green, and Caird exerted a profound influence on moral philosophy can be seen in much of the ethical literature that appeared during the 1880s and 1890s. Some philosophers were content simply to recommend their foundational writings to others,192 while some expounded them in textbooks of their own, and even in cases where independent argument was advanced the marks of influence were still very strong.

6.4.1 W.R. Sorley The Ethics of Naturalism

Deriving from a set of lectures given as part of his Shaw Fellowship in Edinburgh, and submitted too for his Fellowship at Trinity College Cambridge, Sorley's On the Ethics of Naturalism was published in 1885; a new (and significantly revised) edition appearing some twenty years later in 1904. The bulk of the book consists in an attack on naturalism which, though broadly in line with the views of Bradley, Green, and Caird, is developed with some originality.193 However, the book's positive alternative, which he sets out in its final chapter, is a virtual paraphrase of Green.194

The fundamental problem, says Sorley in that chapter, is that all any naturalistic approach (such as that of evolutionary theory) can tell us is the direction in which things tend, but what ethical philosophy asks for is the direction in which things ought to tend. Efficient causation cannot yield teleology, while no account of the origin of social action can tell us its proper end or goal.195 The mistake, he suggests, is linked to that of trying to find a naturalistic explanation of the origin of consciousness. Self-consciousness is not something we may derive from the world of unconscious objects, however complex their form or function may become. ‘It is, on the contrary, the supreme condition of the world of objects having any existence whatever. It is only through objects being brought into relation with the identical and permanent subject of knowledge, that there is unity in nature, or, in other words, that there is a known world of nature or experience at all.’196 In a connected fashion, genuinely ethical or purposive action calls for self-consciousness, in this case ‘not an apprehension of the manifold of impression into the unity of consciousness’ but rather ‘the externalisation (p.220) of self-consciousness in realising a conceived end or idea.’197 Only a conscious being can be deliberative or purposive. An agent must choose an end as his own, but ‘an end can only be made our own when conceived as necessary for realising or completing our idea of self   ’,198 and in this fashion the goal of all conscious action may be thought of as self-realization. (Although Sorley points out that Green's own term ‘self-satisfaction’ must not be misread as ‘the pleasure of self-satisfaction’.)199 What is the nature of the true self that must be realized? Sorley is more tentative than Green, but he does argue that we must recognize in others not merely a ‘similar consciousness’ but an identical one, calling alike for realization in us both.200 This does not do away with all conflict, but it ‘establishes the principle that the realisation of one's own nature involves the realisation of that of others’201—Green's common good.

6.4.2 S. Alexander Moral Order and Progress

In 1877, after two years at the University of Melborne, Samuel Alexander came to the Balliol College of Jowett, Green, Nettleship, and A.C. Bradley, and in 1882, following a degree in Literae Humaniores, he was elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, the first professing Jew to be so recognized by an Oxbridge college. Winning the newly instituted Green Moral Philosophy Prize in 1887,202 his first book, Moral Order and Progress (which appeared in 1889), had strong idealist credentials.203 Alexander says that it was A.C. Bradley whose teaching inspired him to study ethics204 and F.H. Bradley, his tutor's brother, who went through the proofs of the entire book with him, but more perhaps than either of these—and as Alexander himself acknowledges—are his very great obligations to Green.

He is, for example, fully signed up to the idealist notion that there exists an organic relation between individual and society; man is known to us only as a social being whose moral life grows out of his social upbringing, so it is idle to start inquiry from a position of individualism.205 Instead we must recognize the social nature of the moral ideal; ‘Every good act, every part of the moral order, is…thus a common good in virtue of the tie it creates between all the members of the order.’ In consequence Alexander denies any fundamental distinction between egoism and altruism206 and emphasizes the importance of self-sacrifice and service.207 Other followings of Green (p.221) include a stress on the presence of consciousness as the key differentia of voluntary or moral action,208 a distinction between negative and positive freedom—the contrast between the removal of restraints and responsibility for right action209—and advocacy of the progressive nature of the moral ideal.

But endorsement of such Greenian themes is not incompatible with Alexander's expressing also ‘dissent from his fundamental principles’. Like Sorley, Alexander is much concerned with the new ‘evolutionary ethics’ which was at the time an important force. But while Sorley is almost wholly critical, Alexander finds much more to approve. He finds a convergence between idealist and evolutionary ethics, something which can be seen ‘by comparing the idealist doctrine, that morality is a common good realised in individual wills, with the view…that conduct is moral according to its contribution to social vitality’. In both we see individualism replaced by the recognition of an organic connection between the individual and his society.

That Alexander can see the naturalistic and post-Kantian traditions pointing to a single result reveals some crucial differences between him and Green. To begin with he opposes Green's intrusion of metaphysics into ethics, although the claim is not pushed as far as it might be: while complaining that Green's metaphysical and timeless self ‘is both for psychology and for ethics an unnecessary idea’,210 he does allow ‘that ethical inquiries really stand very near to metaphysics’, so in the end his criticism is simply that ‘ethics is not a part of metaphysics because it happens to stand, so to speak, next door’.211 More fundamentally he takes issue with Green's ethic of perfection or self-realization. There is no single standard of perfection and every act is an act of self-realization so that rather than use these notions to determine the content of morality, we must appeal to morality itself to fill out their meaning.212 This is an uncharitable objection, for Green would admit that the self-realization formula by itself is insufficient to determine action, while Alexander's alternative (Platonic) suggestion of ‘equilibrium’ is not obviously more useful. (He suggests that the idea of good or right signifies an adjustment of parts in an orderly whole, which in the individual represents an equilibrium of different powers, and in the society an equilibrium of different persons.) Alexander takes issue too with Green's key objection to Hedonism, that there is no such thing as the sum of pleasures. The objection forms part of Green's general critique of psychological atomism, which is a fair one; a mere succession of mental events has no unity. But once conscious unity has been accounted for (and it is, argues Alexander, unnecessary to bring in some metaphysically transcendent self for this purpose) no reason remains to deny that pleasures can be added. In Alexander's mind, Green, although right in rejecting individualism, gives the wrong reason for rejecting hedonism. The problem is not that pleasures cannot be added, but that, differing in quality and not just in quantity, they cannot be compared.213

(p.222) Alexander's Moral Order and Progress is usefully compared to a second expanded version of an essay which won the Green Moral Philosophy Prize, this time in 1899—A.E. Taylor's The Problem of Conduct (1901). At the same time as holding on to a monistic idealism much indebted to Bradley, and drawing heavily on various elements of idealistic ethics, as with Alexander, Taylor's debts sit alongside much opposition to the school, and to Green in particular. Indeed going further than Alexander and finding nothing but a gap between Green's ethics and metaphysics, the book commits idealist heresy in arguing for a general disassociation of ethics from metaphysics, insisting that the former needs to be treated empirically. Ethics, if it is to be any use must be based not on general principles of metaphysics, but on the study of human nature in its concrete empirical entirety, as it is revealed in the sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. ‘It is for empirical psychology to say what qualities are and what are not of “absolute” worth for human beings’ Taylor insists.214

6.4.3 J.H. Muirhead The Elements of Ethics

Sorley, Alexander, and Taylor all wrote independent essays, but this was not the only kind of writing to be found in the moral philosophy literature at this time; and one of the most interesting measures of Idealism's influence is the appearance of a number of textbooks, condensing and presenting the new ethics for the use of students.215 The emergence of such books, paralleled in many other academic disciplines, reflects the changes in university teaching at this point in history, but it also demonstrates the contemporary strength and hegemony of the idealist position. Students needed textbooks to help them with what was then ‘state of the art’. And that was Idealism.

The first of these books to appear was John Henry Muirhead's The Elements of Ethics (1892). His idealist grounding was thorough; Glasgow university, where he studied under Edward Caird,216 Balliol College, where Jowett, Green, A.C. Bradley, and Nettleship all taught, and Manchester New College (at that time in London) where James Martineau was Principal. What most interested Muirhead was developing the ethical implications of the idealist vision. Lecturing at both Royal Holloway and Bedford Colleges, he was one of the founders of the London Ethical Society in 1886,217 and involved too in the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching. It was lectures for the latter that formed the basis of The Elements of Ethics, which appeared as one of a series of University Extension Manuals. The book was phenomenally successful, bringing his name to a very wide audience. The volume (p.223) recognized the growing ascendancy of idealist ethical thought, and with no pretence of originality, presents to students the thoughts of Green, Bradley, and Caird. In this Muirhead met a real need; for these ideas were still not readily available to a wider audience. Green's Prolegomena was a hard book,218 while Bradley deliberately kept his Ethical Studies out of print, and Caird's views could be found only in obscure articles or buried under his various historical studies.

The book introduces nearly all the key themes of idealist ethics from the holistic nature of explanation—‘A phenomenon is…only fully explained when enough is known of the particular system in question to permit us to apprehend the phenomenon in light of the known relations of the other parts, and therefore as a coherent member of the whole’219—to the close dependence of ethics on metaphysics—‘the nature of the world at large and man's relation to it are of the utmost importance to ethics’.220 Emphasizing that human desires are always conscious and directed at more or less definitely conceived objects (which distinguishes them from mere appetites which we share with animals), Muirhead urges that all are related to the self, in the sense that it is their realization for a self, some form of self-satisfaction, that is desired. To desire some object is to desire to become the possessor of that object, to desire to do something is to desire to be a person who has done that thing.221 He stresses, though, that this is not the same as saying that desire is always self-interested; personal good is not the same as personal advantage.222

He rejects both Hedonism and Kantianism, locating their most fundamental flaw in a common and mistaken understanding of the difference between feeling and reason. For the Hedonist the fundamental nature of the self is to feel, its goal given by mere sensation, reasoning contributing simply the means. But the self is more than just feeling and cannot be satisfied with just that.223 For the Kantian the fundamental self is the reasoning self, its goal given by mere thought, and desire something to be excluded from ethics at all cost. But this is to condemn our natural moral sentiments, the ordinary affections of love and pity, hope and fear. Contra both parties, Muirhead insists that we must break down the division between feeling and reason; ‘there can be no object of desire, in the proper sense of the word, which is not constituted such by reason itself   ’.224 To fail to see this is to confuse appetite, which we share with the animals, and desire, which calls for a consciously conceived object. Appetite is the raw material of desire as sensation is the raw material of perception. As there can be no desire without the conscious activity of thought or reason, so there can be no activity in a thinking or rational self without desire. The rational life is not one without desire, but instead one regulated by our higher rather than our lower desires.225

(p.224) The more recent evolutionary utilitarianism of Spencer and Stephen is found equally unable to provide a goal, although it is credited for revealing that the self is no isolated atom, but rather something essentially social. This point Muirhead establishes at some considerable length. ‘It is the function it performs in virtue of its special place in the organism which makes the hand a hand and the foot a foot. In the same way it is his place and function in society that makes the individual what he is.’226 Because our nature is social so must be the standard of moral judgement; the good is a common good, undermining the traditional distinction between altruism and egoism.227 Man ‘can only realise his own life in so far as he realises the life of the society of which he is a member. To maintain himself in isolated independence, to refuse to be compromised by social relations, is the surest way to fail to realise the good he seeks. To seek life in this sense is to lose it. On the other hand, a man finds salvation in the duties of family, profession, city, country. To lose his life in these is to find it.’228 From this he draws, among other things, a clear prohibition on suicide: ‘no man has a right to take his own life, because no man has a life of his own to take’.229 Such social holism is not of course without metaphysical significance, but in general it is notable that, while not dissenting from that system, the introductory nature of his task leads Muirhead to set out the ethics of Idealism wholly without its associated metaphysics of the Absolute.230

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the book is found in the final section which tackles head on issues of moral progress and relativism, left somewhat implicit in the writings of Green, Bradley, and Caird. Reflection on differing moral codes of different times and countries reveals the fact that the moral standard is relative.231 But ‘the actual standard of any particular period, while undoubtedly relative to the special circumstances of the time and country, is not on that account an isolated and accidental phenomenon, but takes its place as a stage in the evolution of a universal moral order.’232 Moral perspectives are time and culture bound, but their historical sequence is nevertheless one of increasing depth and adequacy.

(p.225) 6.4.4 J.S. Mackenzie Manual of Ethics

Muirhead was not the only one of Caird's Glasgow students to write such a volume. One year later in 1893, J.S. Mackenzie published his Manual of Ethics, part of the University Corresponding College Tutorial Series for students taking external degrees such as those for the University of London.233 Similarly popular and finding its way ‘into the remotest corners of the globe’, the book ‘made his name familiar almost wherever ethics was taught and English spoken’.234 Though offering rather more contributions of its own, the Manual does fundamentally the same work as Muirhead's (indeed, Mackenzie says that had the Elements appeared before he started work, his book would probably not have been written at all),235 that is, a presentation of the idealist ethical viewpoint as found in the writings of Green, Bradley, and Caird; from which it borrows freely.

Kant is dismissed as offering a merely formal principle, from which no definite matter or guidance can be derived.236 He is moreover too strict in ruling out all action which springs from feeling rather than the direct application of reason, for many such actions we value highly. The real problem is that Kant's perspective is too narrow. With a view to itself alone or its immediate consequences the universalization of a given action may be unproblematic, but if we look more widely and consider ‘its bearing on the whole scheme of life’, this is something we could never will. It is not enough that a principle of action is consistent with itself. It must also be ‘consistent with the self—i.e. with the unity of our lives as a systematic whole’.237

Drawing on a detailed critique first put forward in his 1890 Introduction to Social Philosophy,238 Mackenzie repeats Green's complaint against hedonism: ‘If pleasure is the one thing that is desirable, it is clear that a sum of pleasures cannot be desirable; for a sum of pleasures is not pleasure. We are apt to think that a sum of pleasures is pleasure, just as a sum of numbers is a number. But this is evidently not the case. A sum of pleasures is not pleasure, any more than a sum of men is a man.’239 But again a deeper fault is found. Treating desires separately, each with an equal right to satisfaction as long as they yield the same length or intensity of feeling, hedonism ignores the fact that what we seek to satisfy is not our desires but ourselves.240 What is important is that we will, not the greatest sum of happiness, but the best kind of happiness, that is, one belonging to the highest type of character.241

Again repeating his earlier view,242 Mackenzie argues that in this way both doctrines point towards the moral ideal as some form of self-realization or the development of character; perfection rather than either duty or happiness. He follows Green in stressing (p.226) that we are driven by conscious desire rather than mere appetite, that action is to be explained telelogically rather than causally. It follows, Mackenzie argues, that ‘moral life consists in the constant endeavour to make…more and more explicit—to bring out more and more completely our rational self-conscious, spiritual nature’.243 Thus, via an elision of concepts that is worrying but typifies the school, he moves from the deliberate and conscious nature of action to the conclusion that the true self is the rational self.244 Although, lest we fall back into some sort of Kantianism, he is quick to point out that, ‘to occupy the point of view of reason…therefore, is not to withdraw from all our desires, and occupy the point of view of mere formal self-consistency; it is rather to place all our desires in their right relations to one another’.245 Thus the imperative of morality is not an imperative imposed from without, but ‘simply the voice of the true self within us’; conscience is the voice which says ‘to thine own self be true’.246 Related to this, to be free means that one is determined by oneself,247 but the fact that one's truest self may be something somewhat hidden awaiting to be discovered means, rather than that we are free, that it is better to say we are developing towards freedom.248

The true self is the rational self, but it is also the social self, for every individual belongs to a social system and is inconceivable without it. Society is an organic unity—‘The parts of it are necessary to each other, as the parts of an animal organism are’249—and so the ideal self is something that may be embodied only in the life of a society. Undermining the opposition between egoism and altruism, we can realize our true self only by pursuing social ends. We must sacrifice ourselves, negating the merely individual self (which is merely the apparent self) and rising by stages to ‘a universal point of view—i.e. a point of view from which our own private good is no more to us than the good of anyone else’.250 Interestingly, as with Muirhead's book, although Mackenzie charts the transition from the individual to the social, the next move up to the metaphysical (to God or the eternal consciousness) is not pursued.

6.4.5 J. Seth Study of Ethical Principles

The last of the textbooks to consider, James Seth's, Study of Ethical Principles (1894) has a slightly different pedigree and nature. Rather than at Glasgow, Seth's training was at Edinburgh University where his teachers were Alexander Campbell Fraser and Henry Calderwood. In 1886 he accepted an invitation to succeed Jacob Gould Schurman as Professor of Metaphysics and Ethics at Dalhousie College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, moving from there in 1892 to Brown University as Professor of Natural Theology.251 His introduction was thus written in part for a different student market, but the great (p.227) success it enjoyed—equal to either Muirhead's or Mackenzie's—was certainly not confined to North America.

He follows the idealist pattern of finding deficient and one-sided both the claims of hedonism and ‘rigorism’ (or ‘rationalism’ as he terms it in later editions); both sides make legitimate claims, but neither may be granted sole control of ethical thought. Self-realization is fine as an alternative formula, but Seth warns it is something of a truism to say that the end of human life is self-realization: ‘every ethical theory might claim the term “Self-realisation,” as each might claim the term “Happiness.” The question is, What is the “Self  ”? or Which self is to be realised?’252 There can be no useful ideal of self-realization without an adequate definition of selfhood or personality. Much of what Seth says in this regard is familiar. Rejecting the merely sentient self of hedonism, and the merely rational self of rigorism, his own position—which he names ‘Eudaemonism’ or ‘the ethics of personality’—seeks to realize the complete or total self, rational and sentient. Rejecting too the social atom, it is a call to self-sacrifice, to the deep truth of the Christian principle ‘Die to live’. ‘The subjection of the individual, impulsive, sentient self to the order of reason is a Herculean task’ he admits, but ‘The higher or personal self can be realised only through the death of the lower or individual self, as lower and merely individual’.253

However it must be noted that Seth's basic position was that of ethical theism and, as such, more Kantian than Hegelian; with Caird, Bradley, and Green all playing relatively minor roles. And not all of Seth's points were so supportive. In particular he voices fundamental concerns around freedom and personality.254 Although it is true that service to others is the way to perfect self-realization, forming ‘a bridge from the individual to the social virtues, the essential identity of altruism with the higher egoism’,255 society is not an organism. That he warns is only a metaphor and ‘the individual can never wholly identify himself with the society, simply because he remains, to the last, an individual’.256 To move even further out, into the metaphysics of the Absolute, he cautions ‘sacrifices, with the freedom of man, the reality of his moral life. If I am but the vehicle of the divine self-manifestation, if my personality is not real but only seeming—the mask that hides the sole activity of God—my freedom and my moral life dissolve together’.257

Notes:

(1) For many years Bradley declined to republish Ethical Studies. This was due as much as anything to its highly polemical nature and ‘the decay of those superstitions against which largely it was directed’ (Ethical Studies, 356n); the need for such a book had simply passed. But in the year of his death he began preparing additional material towards a new edition. Although the task was unfinished, and consequently we cannot assume that these are the only changes he would have made, the revisions which were subsequently incorporated into the second edition of 1928, were neither very serious nor very numerous. They concern for the most part psychological matters (reflecting the growing emphasis that psychology came to play in his thinking).

(2) Bosanquet, ‘Life and Philosophy’, 58. ‘A page of it dilutes into a hundred of any other’ he claimed (59).

(3) The poet T.S. Eliot was a great admirer. See below p.347.

(4) See below p.188.

(5) Ethical Studies, viii.

(6) Ethical Studies, 129, 140.

(7) Ethical Studies, 12.

(8) Ethical Studies, 38.

(9) Ethical Studies, 41.

(10) Collected Essays, 152.

(11) Ethical Studies, 64. This strategy opens up the possibility of a certain species of justification for morality after all. Although it may not be defended as instrumental to some further goal, we can say more than just that it is to be pursued for its own sake, for in so far as morality is a part and not the whole end of human life, it may be shown to be an integral element in a wider human end pursued for its own sake (Irwin, Development of Ethics, 546).

(12) Ethical Studies, 65.

(13) Ethical Studies, 82.

(14) Ethical Studies, 95.

(15) Ethical Studies, 74. see also Mr Sidgwick's Hedonism, 85.

(16) Bradley's discussion of this point was very influential. Among other places, we find it repeated in Bosanquet, Life and Finite Individuality, 181, and Jones, Principles of Citizenship, 82–4.

(17) Ethical Studies, 79.

(18) Ethical Studies, 69.

(19) Ethical Studies, 86–7.

(20) Ethical Studies, 96.

(21) Ethical Studies, 97–8.

(22) Ethical Studies, 103.

(23) Ethical Studies, 105.

(24) Mr Sidgwick's Hedonism, 98–104.

(25) Irwin, Development of Ethics, 561–2.

(26) Ethical Studies,148 note 1.

(27) Ethical Studies, 172–3, 185–7. The citations are from Hegel's Philosophische Abhandlungen and his Phenomenology of Spirit, §§349–52.

(28) See for example Phenomenology of Spirit, §§306, 447, 461.

(29) A System of Logic, Bk VI, ch. VII.

(30) Ethical Studies, 168.

(31) Ethical Studies, 173.

(32) Ethical Studies, 174.

(33) For more on the notion of an ‘organic whole’ see Chapter 7.3 below.

(34) Ethical Studies, 173.

(35) Ethical Studies, 173.

(36) Ethical Studies, 162. See Chapter 8.3.5 below.

(37) Ethical Studies, 188. Bradley's terminology here is Kantian (Critique of Pure Reason A568/B686).

(38) Ethical Studies, 202.

(39) Ethical Studies, 203.

(40) Ethical Studies, 192. ‘We hold…that the true nature of man, the oneness of homogeneity and specification, is being wrought out in history; in short we believe in evolution. The process of evolution is the humanizing of the bestial foundation of man's nature by carrying out in it the true idea of man’ (Ethical Studies, 190). In individual terms Bradley sets out in some detail the evolution of the good and bad moral selves in man (Ethical Studies, 276ff), while the book's own passage from Hedonism, through Kantianism and Hegelianism, to a new system of ‘ideal morality’ follows a clearly recognizable path through the history of Western moral philosophy.

(41) Ethical Studies, 205.

(42) Ethical Studies, 220.

(43) Ethical Studies, 222.

(44) Ethical Studies, 314.

(45) Appearance and Reality, 213.

(46) Appearance and Reality, 488.

(47) Appearance and Reality, 355. He says, ‘the good is not the Whole, and the Whole, as such, is not good. And, viewed thus in relation to the Absolute, there is nothing either bad or good, there is not anything better or worse’ (Appearance and Reality, 363).

(48) Appearance and Reality, 363.

(49) Appearance and Reality, 363.

(50) Appearance and Reality, 136, 213.

(51) Appearance and Reality, 216.

(52) See above Chapter 5.5.2.

(53) Appearance and Reality, 131, cf. 136.

(54) Appearance and Reality, 135.

(55) Appearance and Reality, 175.

(56) Essays on Truth and Reality, 14.

(57) Appearance and Reality, 139–40. Bradley himself felt this indirect argument from the absence of contradiction to the absence of pain to be less than perfect, and in the last chapter of Appearance and Reality entitled ‘Final Doubts’ he admits that, ‘The idea of a painful universe, in the end, seems to be neither quite meaningless nor yet visibly self-contradictory. And I am compelled to allow that, speaking strictly, we must call it possible’ (Appearance and Reality, 474). His reason for conceding this is strange. He admits that so far as we have experienced it, pain seems to be linked to conflict, but is reluctant to state with finality that this belongs to its essence. Perhaps they only seem to require each other because of our partial and limited view, such that there might somewhere in the universe be a kind of pain which could exist in the absence of conflict.

(58) The origination of many of Green's ideas may be traced back even earlier than this to the late 1860s at which point they were undoubtedly a key impetus to Bradley (who attended Green's lectures) in the development of his ethical thought (see note 170 to Chapter 4 above).

(59) With the case of knowledge the theory in his sights was the evolutionary understanding of mind, here it is explicitly identified as evolutionary ethics (Prolegomena, §§5–7).

(60) Prolegomena, §110.

(61) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 95.

(62) Prolegomena, §106.

(63) Prolegomena, §120.

(64) Prolegomena, §87. Idealism takes Green by a shorter route to Kant's conclusion that freedom is not a property of human beings as existing in nature, space and time, but really belongs to them as atemporal subjects (Irwin, Development of Ethics, 583).

(65) Prolegomena, §82.

(66) ‘The World is nigh thee’, 224. Nettleship dates this fragment as prior to 1871 (Collected Works, III, Preface vi) so we should not see the term ‘self-realisation’ here as a reference to Bradley.

(67) If our concern is with exact chronology, that Bradley probably received the notion from Green, whose lectures he attended in the late 1860s, is confirmed by his own admission—‘Self realization as the ethical end. I do not remember who first introduced it into English ethics (perhaps Green)’ Collected Works, III: 255—but credit for published priority, however, should be given to Wallace, who, in the Prolegomena to the 1874 edition of Hegel's Logic (clx, clxxxiv) first introduced the term into Idealist circles. Much more is made of the notion in the expanded 1894 edition.

(68) Prolegomena, §95, cf §91.

(69) Prolegomena, §85.

(70) Prolegomena, §171.

(71) Prolegomena, §171.

(72) Prolegomena, §234.

(73) Compare: It is popularly believed that humans use only 10% of their brain power; a thought which can only lead us to wonder what we could achieve if we used it all.

(74) See, e.g., Prolegomena, §§178–9, 181, 195, 205, 247.

(75) Prolegomena, §95.

(76) Prolegomena, §172.

(77) Colin Tyler, Thomas Hill Green and the Philosophical Foundations of Politics, 93.

(78) Prolegomena, §180.

(79) Prolegomena, §257.

(80) Prolegomena, §253.

(81) Prolegomena, §174.

(82) Prolegomena, §173.

(83) Boucher and Vincent, British Idealism and Political Theory, 37.

(84) Prolegomena, §153. ‘No desire which forms part of our moral experience would be what it is, if it were not the desire of a subject which also understands: no act of our intelligence would be what it is, if it were not the act of a subject which also desires’ (Prolegomena, §130).

(85) Prolegomena, §159.

(86) Prolegomena, §223.

(87) Prolegomena, §161.

(88) Prolegomena, §171.

(89) Prolegomena, §167.

(90) Prolegomena, §221.

(91) See above p.186.

(92) Problem of Conduct, 323.

(93) Although, as was noted, he did subsequently write a pamphlet.

(94) It is worth noting that the two had been at school together, at Rugby, and remained on friendly terms in later life (See letters in Green, Collected Works, V: 422–4, 458–9).

(95) Prolegomena, §374, §380.

(96) Preface to fifth edition (v).

(97) Irwin, ‘Morality and Personality: Kant and Green’, 32.

(98) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 124. A claim that could so easily have been made by Caird.

(99) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 104.

(100) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 155.

(101) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 139–40.

(102) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 154.

(103) Prolegomena, §247.

(104) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 155.

(105) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 154.

(106) Prolegomena, §295. ‘From the difficulty of presenting to ourselves in any positive form what a society, perfected in this sense, would be, we may take refuge in describing the object of the devotion, which our consciences demand, as the greatest happiness of the greatest number; and until we puzzle ourselves with analysis, such an account may be sufficient for practical purposes’ (Prolegomena, §286).

(107) For this case see Weinstein, Utilitarianism and the New Liberalism, ch. 2. For the case against see Simhony, ‘T.H. Green was no Consequentialist of any Kind’.

(108) Prolegomena, §217.

(109) Prolegomena, §214.

(110) Prolegomena, §155.

(111) Prolegomena, §193.

(112) Prolegomena, §292.

(113) Prolegomena, §105. ‘the only true good is the good will’ (Prolegomena, §240), ‘the actions which ought to be done…are actions expressive of a good will’ (Prolegomena, §293).

(114) Prolegomena, §294.

(115) Prolegomena, §195.

(116) Prolegomena, §196.

(117) Prolegomena, §201.

(118) Prolegomena, §199.

(119) Prolegomena, §247.

(120) Prolegomena, §202.

(121) Prolegomena, §235.

(122) Prolegomena, §232.

(123) Prolegomena, §244.

(124) Prolegomena, §281.

(125) Prolegomena, §243.

(126) ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, 212–17.

(127) This analogy is explored in Dworkin, ‘Liberal Community’, 225–7.

(128) Prolegomena, §200, italics added.

(129) Prolegomena, §200.

(130) Prolegomena, §201.

(131) Prolegomena, §229.

(132) Prolegomena, §232.

(133) Prolegomena, §231.

(134) See Chapter 5.3.6.

(135) Prolegomena, §191.

(136) Prolegomena, §183.

(137) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 146.

(138) Prolegomena, §199.

(139) ‘No individual can make a conscience for himself. He always needs a society to make it for him’ (Prolegomena, §321).

(140) Lectures on Principles of Political Obligation, §128. This point is echoed precisely by Edward Caird, who argues that the careers of great individuals (selfish kings or idiosyncratic radicals, and such like) are only an apparent exception to this rule since in reality they too express their own time (‘Reform and the Reformation’, 9).

(141) Prolegomena, §110. The self must be regarded ‘as at once individual and universal’ (‘Popular Philosophy’, 99).

(142) Prolegomena, §184.

(143) Prolegomena, §§184–5.

(144) Prolegomena, §189.

(145) A forthcoming work by Caird on ethics was advertised in the Muirhead Library of Philosophy between 1893 and 1907, but failed ever to materialize. See Tyler, Unpublished Manuscripts, II:x; Tyler, Idealist Political Philosophy, 128 note 4.

(146) See Mackenzie, ‘Edward Caird as a Philosophical Teacher’, 511–12. Such influence, it should be added, was not utterly ephemeral, for he inspired important textbooks. See 6.4.3 and 6.4.4 below.

(147) ‘Reform and the Reformation’, 2.

(148) ‘Professor Green's Last Work’, 559; The Social Philosophy of Comte, xv; ‘Reform and the Reformation’, 7, 8, 27; Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, II:3.

(149) ‘Reform and the Reformation’, 28.

(150) ‘Reform and the Reformation’, 16, 24–6. As well as by Caird, the illustration is one offered too by William Wallace (Prolegomena to the Study of Hegel's Philosophy, 3). But both, of course, are drawing on the observation made first by Hegel that what seems circular may also appear progressive. See Lectures on the Philosophy of History, I:27, 346.

(151) ‘Professor Green's Last Work’, 561.

(152) Eternally we always are that which temporally we are not but hope to bring about. Whether Caird also believed that at some earlier stage of either human cultural history or individual psychological development people enjoyed a more harmonious conscious life is unclear. Relevant here is his discussion of the Fall (‘Reform and Reformation’, 3–6).

(153) Ethical Philosophy, 13.

(154) ‘The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom’ (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Introduction, 19–20).

(155) Evolution of Religion, II:284ff.

(156) Ethical Philosophy, 19.

(157) Ethical Philosophy, 21.

(158) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:561. ‘True independence for a being like man, who is essentially part of a greater whole, is not to be reached by shutting others out of his life—for he who shuts others out, shuts himself in—but by that widening of sympathy which makes the life and interests of others part of his own’ (Lay Sermons, 10–11).

(159) Lay Sermons, 6.

(160) Henry Jones, Idealism as a Practical Creed, Chapters II to IV, trace Caird's story exactly.

(161) ‘On the Different Senses of Freedom’, §§1,18; ‘Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract’, 372, 384.

(162) Ethical Studies, 56–7.

(163) The mere individual, the unit out of which Mill wished to build society, is a non-existent ‘fiction’ (Ethical Studies, 168). The individual apart from the community is an unreal ‘abstraction’ (Ethical Studies, 173). The idea that society is assembled out of distinct units, Bradley dismisses as a ‘fable’ (Ethical Studies, 174).

(164) Ethical Philosophy, 17, 19.

(165) The Social Philosophy of Comte, 171.

(166) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:401.

(167) Caird seems not to find any clear distinction between these.

(168) The Social Philosophy of Comte, 169–70.

(169) The Social Philosophy of Comte, 170. The echoes of Green's discussion of desire and motive are strong here.

(170) The Social Philosophy of Comte, 171.

(171) Review of Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics, 614.

(172) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:402.

(173) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:401.

(174) Ethical Studies, 250–6. It is either trivial or just plain false, he argues (Ethical Studies, 255).

(175) Ethical Studies, 278.

(176) Ethical Studies, 278–9.

(177) Ethical Studies, 279–93.

(178) Ethical Studies, 293ff. For a detailed discussion of this process of moral self-development see Don MacNiven, Bradley's Moral Psychology, and Keene ‘The Interplay of Bradley's Social and Moral Philosophy’, 100–5.

(179) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:184.

(180) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:185.

(181) Here we may make an aside. While it is certainly a shame that Caird never wrote the full length ethical treatise he apparently intended to (see note 145 above) the pity is mitigated by the fact that, had he done so, it would probably not have looked very different from the material we do in fact have. It would certainly have been historical.

(182) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:196, 2:226.

(183) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:205.

(184) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:206. This is a specific instance of a more general point in logic, for Caird, that all difference implies a wider embracing unity. See Chapter 8.2 below.

(185) Review of Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics, 612.

(186) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:191–2.

(187) Critical Philosophy of Immanuel Kant, II:238.

(188) We may note here, as an aside (though hardly a surprising one given their contact) that John Caird, as early as 1880, expresses very similar views. No one is or can be independent of others, he argues, ‘whether you will or no, there is a sense in which other minds and wills are part of you.…From the very dawn of your existence your spiritual nature is steeped in the life of the past, in the spirit of the age and society into which you are born, and in the unconscious influences that emanate from other minds.…Each soul does not make a new start to shape its independent career. For good or ill, it is part of an organic whole.’ However, ‘Union with other minds and lives is not the suppression but the evolution and realisation of our own individual nature’ (‘Union with God’, 28–9, 28).

(189) Hegel, 44.

(190) Mark 8:34–5, Luke 9:23–4, Luke 14:25–33, John 12:24. The phrase came to idealism filtered also through Goethe whose celebrated poem ‘Selige Sehnsucht’ (‘Blessed Longing’) addressed to a moth, includes in its final stanza the exhortation, ‘stirb und werde!’ (‘Die and become!’).

(191) Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, 182, 186–90.

(192) Bosanquet, for example, in his pre-1891 address on ‘The Kingdom of God on Earth’ (116) acknowledges that the ethical code he is putting forward is an attempt to ‘popularise’ that advanced by Bradley in ‘My Station and its Duties’, while in his ‘Working Faith of the Social Reformer’ (49–50) Jones advances his case for the determination of individual character by social context through extensive quotation from the same.

(193) Part One of the book deals with traditional theories (psychological hedonism, utilitarianism, and the moral sentiment' theory of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson) while Part Two of the book considers the theory of evolution (Spencer and Leslie Stephen). Failing to establish any connection between survival and pleasure, he argues that evolutionary theory may not assimilate its goal to that of hedonism, but neither is it able to supply its own alternative end (Ethics of Naturalism, 257–61).

(194) In the second edition this chapter was completely rewritten, and the explicit following of Green dropped. See below for more on Sorley's later ethics.

(195) Ethics of Naturalism, 264–71.

(196) Ethics of Naturalism, 282.

(197) Ethics of Naturalism, 284.

(198) Ethics of Naturalism, 287.

(199) Ethics of Naturalism, 287–8.

(200) Ethics of Naturalism, 289.

(201) Ethics of Naturalism, 290.

(202) The Green Moral Philosophy Prize was originally established in 1884 to give immediate effect to a decree in the will of T.H. Green by which on the death of Mrs T.H. Green the sum of £1,000 was to be bequeathed to the University of Oxford for the purpose of funding a triennial prize ‘on a dissertation on some subject relating to moral philosophy’.

(203) Moral Order and Progress was successful enough to go into a third edition by 1899, but in later life Alexander moved away from this position and allowed the book to go out of print.

(204) The book is dedicated to A.C. Bradley.

(205) Moral Order and Progress, 113.

(206) Moral Order and Progress, 175.

(207) Moral Order and Progress, 176.

(208) Moral Order and Progress, 75.

(209) Moral Order and Progress, 8.

(210) Moral Order and Progress, 76.

(211) Moral Order and Progress, 78.

(212) Moral Order and Progress, 187–8.

(213) Moral Order and Progress, 197–202.

(214) Problem of Conduct, 169.

(215) Since the concern here is with British Idealism, there is space only to mention Dewey's Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics (1891) which it has been argued ‘could almost be read as a corrected, revised edition of Bradley's Ethical Studies for the American undergraduate student of ethics’ (Welchman, Dewey's Ethical Thought, 75). Its preface expresses its great indebtedness to Caird, Bradley, and Green.

(216) As well as acknowledging his debt in the Preface, Muirhead dedicated the later editions (from the third edition (1910) onwards) to his former teacher.

(217) den Otter, British Idealism and Social Explanation, 84.

(218) In this connection mention should be made of W.H. Fairbrother's The Philosophy of Thomas Hill Green (1896) A summary for students, this testifies both to fact that Green was taught and that students found it hard.

(219) Elements, 21.

(220) Elements, 31–2.

(221) Elements, 49–50.

(222) Elements, 80.

(223) Elements, 108.

(224) Elements, 121.

(225) Elements, 122.

(226) Elements, 162.

(227) Elements, 153.

(228) Elements, 160.

(229) Elements, 164. As the self-destruction of will itself, Green in his Lectures on Moral and Political Philosophy regards suicide as among the class of things which, though ‘ludicrously wrong’, utilitarianism is powerless to forbid (Collected Works, V:159–60). In similar fashion James Seth argued that ‘Suicide, being self-destruction, so far as that is possible to us, must always contradict the fundamental ethical principle of self-development’ (Study of Ethical Principles, 262). Although recognizing that some suicides, for example, to save others, might fall into a different category (Ethical Studies, 158), Bradley seems to have been similarly opposed to suicide. He puts it thus in his Aphorisms: ‘One said of suicide, “As long as one has brains one should not blow them out.” And another answered, “But when one has ceased to have them, too often one cannot” ’ (#48). This comment is, however, cryptic and admits of more than one reading. Caird's view on the question is unrecorded.

(230) He does briefly digress to endorse a Green-like argument that the knowing subject must be more than just a passive recipient of sensations (Elements, 216–18), but the line of thought is taken no further than this.

(231) Elements, 193.

(232) Elements, 211.

(233) Like Muirhead's book, he acknowledges his debt to Caird. Mackenzie by this point, after a period at Trinity College Cambridge, was working as assistant to Robert Adamson at Manchester.

(234) John Stuart Mackenzie, 164; J.W. Scott, ‘John Stuart MacKenzie’.

(235) Manual, Preface vi.

(236) Manual, 57–8.

(237) Manual, 66.

(238) Introduction to Social Philosophy, 200–26.

(239) Manual, 113.

(240) Manual, 114.

(241) Manual, 115.

(242) Introduction to Social Philosophy, 228–36.

(243) Manual, 135.

(244) Manual, 137.

(245) Manual, 138.

(246) Manual, 138.

(247) Manual, 142.

(248) Manual, 147.

(249) Manual, 154.

(250) Manual, 156.

(251) In 1896 Seth moved briefly to Cornell, before he returned to Edinburgh in 1898 to take up the Chair in Moral Philosophy.

(252) Study of Ethical Principles, 204.

(253) Study of Ethical Principles, 213.

(254) These had been evident from his first book Freedom as Ethical Postulate (1891).

(255) Study of Ethical Principles, 278.

(256) Study of Ethical Principles, 142.

(257) Study of Ethical Principles, 384.