C. D. Broad (essay date 1942)
SOURCE: "Certain Features in Moore's Ethical Doctrines," in The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, Northwestern University, 1942, pp. 41-68.
[In the following essay, Broad, the author of the "Compound Theory of Materialistic Emergency, " argues against the validity of Moore's Principia Ethica.]
From the many topics in Moore's ethical writings which might profitably be discussed I am going to choose two in the present paper. They are (1) his attempted refutation of Ethical Egoism, and (2) his distinction between "Natural" and "Non-natural" characteristics, and his doctrine that the word "good" (in one very important use of it) is a name for a certain non-natural characteristic.
(I) ETHICAL EGOISM
I shall begin by defining three opposed terms, viz., "Ethical Egoism," "Ethical Neutralism," and "Ethical Altruism." The second of these is the doctrine which Moore accepts in Principia Ethica; the other two are extreme deviations from it in opposite directions. It will therefore be best to start with ethical neutralism.
The neutralist theory is that no-one has any special duty to himself as such, and that no-one has any special duty to others as such. The fundamental duty of each of us is simply to maximise, so far as he can, the balance of good over bad experiences throughout the whole aggregate of contemporary and future conscious beings. Suppose that A, by giving to B a good experience at the cost of foregoing a good experience or incurring a bad one himself, can increase this balance more than by any other means; then it is A's duty to do so. Suppose, on the other hand, that A, by getting a good experience for himself at the cost of depriving B of a good experience or giving him a bad one, can increase this balance more than by any other means; then it is equally A's duty to do so.
Ethical Egoism is the doctrine that each man has a predominant obligation towards himself as such. Ethical Altruism is the doctrine that each man has a predominant obligation towards others as such. These doctrines might be held in milder or more rigid forms according to the degree of predominance which they ascribe to the egoistic or the altruistic obligation respectively. The extreme form of Ethical Egoism would hold that each man has an ultimate obligation only towards himself. The extreme form of Ethical Altruism would hold that each man has an ultimate obligation only towards others. According to the former extreme each man's only duty is to develop his own nature and dispositions to the utmost and to give himself the most favourable balance that he can of good over bad experiences. He will be concerned with the development and the experiences of other persons only in so far as these may affect, favourably or unfavourably, his own development and his own experience. This doctrine seems to have been held by Spinoza. The extreme form of Ethical Altruism would hold that each man's only duty is to develop to the utmost the natures and the dispositions of all other persons whom he can affect and to give them the most favourable balance that he can of good over bad experiences. He will be concerned with his own experiences only in so far as they may affect, favourably or unfavourably, the development and experiences of other persons.
Now Moore professes to show in Principia Ethica (96-105) that Ethical Egoism is self-contradictory; and, if his argument were valid, a very similar argument could be used to refute Ethical Altruism. He alleges that Ethical Egoism involves the absurdity that each man's good is the sole good, although each man's good is different from any other man's good. In my opinion it involves nothing of the kind; and I will now try to justify that opinion.
First of all, what do we mean by such phrases as "Smith's good" or "Jones' evil?" The good of Smith is just those good experiences, dispositions, etc., which are Smith's; and the evil of Jones is just those bad experiences, dispositions, etc., which are Jones'.
Suppose now that A is an ethical egoist. He can admit that, if a certain experience or disposition of his is good, a precisely similar experience or disposition of B's will be also and equally good. But he will assert that it is not his duty to produce good experiences and dispositions as such, without regard to the question of who will have them. A has an obligation to produce good experiences and dispositions in himself and no such direct obligation to produce them in B or in anyone else. A recognises that B has no such direct obligation to produce them in A or in anyone else. This doctrine does not contradict itself in any way.
What it does contradict is Sidgwick's second axiom about goodness and our obligations in respect of producing it. This is stated as follows in Book III, Chapter XIII of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics (382, in the sixth edition):—" . . . as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally—so far as it is attainable by my efforts—not merely at a particular part of it." Since Sidgwick was an ethical hedonist, he held that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except experiences. Therefore, to "aim at good" will mean to try to produce good experiences and to avert or diminish bad experiences. Therefore this axiom means that it is each person's duty to try to produce the greatest possible net balance of good over bad experiences among all the conscious beings whom he can affect, and that he has no direct obligation to produce such experiences in one rather than in another person or set of persons, e.g., in himself as such or in others as such. Suppose he confines his efforts to himself or to his family or to his social class or to his countrymen, or even to that very extended but still restricted group which consists of everyone but himself; then he will always need some positive justification for this restriction. And the only admissible justification is that, owing to his special limitations or their special relations to him, he can produce more good on the whole by confining his efforts to a certain restricted set of conscious beings. Any restriction in the range of one's beneficent activities needs ethical justification, and this is the only valid ethical justification for it.
It is evident, then, that Sidgwick's axiom is equivalent to the assertion of ethical neutralism, and that ethical egoism is inconsistent with it. But this does not make ethical egoism self-contradictory; and, unless Sidgwick's axiom be self-evidently true, the inconsistency of ethical egoism with it does not refute that doctrine.
Precisely similar remarks would apply to any argument against ethical altruism on the same lines as Moore's argument against ethical egoism. Suppose that A is an ethical altruist. He can admit that, if a certain experience or disposition of B's is good, a precisely similar experience or disposition of his own will be also and equally good. But he asserts that it is not his duty to produce good experiences and dispositions as such, without regard to the question of who will have them. A has an obligation to produce good experiences and dispositions in others, and no such direct obligation to produce them in himself. A recognises that B has an obligation to produce good experiences and dispositions in A and in everyone except B, and that B has no obligation to produce them in B. This doctrine, again, contradicts Sidgwick's second axiom about goodness and our obligations in producing it. But it is not self-contradictory, and, unless Sidgwick's axiom be self-evident, the inconsistency of ethical altruism with it does not refute the latter doctrine.
An illuminating way of putting the difference between ethical neutralism and the other two theories is the following. Ethical neutralism assumes that there is a certain one state of affairs—"the sole good"—at which everyone ought to aim as an ultimate end. Differences in the proximate ends of different persons can be justified only in so far as the one ultimate end is best secured in practice by different persons aiming, not directly at it, but at different proximate ends of a more limited kind. The other two theories deny that there is any one state of affairs at which everyone ought to aim even as an ultimate end. In fact each theory holds that there are as many ultimate ends as there are agents. On the egoistic theory the ultimate end at which A should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in A's experiences and dispositions. The ultimate end at which B should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in B's experiences and dispositions. And so on for C, D, etc. On the altruistic theory the ultimate end at which A should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in the experiences and dispositions of all others-than-A. The ultimate end at which B should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in the experiences and dispositions of all others-than-B. And so on for C, D, etc. The main difference between the two theories is that for egoism the various ultimate ends are mutually exclusive, whilst for altruism any two of them have a very large field in common.
Now there is nothing self-contradictory in the doctrine that, corresponding to each different person, there is a different state of affairs at which he and he only ought to aim as an ultimate end. And there is nothing self-contradictory in the doctrine, which is entailed by this, that there is no one state of affairs at which everyone ought to aim as an ultimate end. Moore simply assumes, in common with Sidgwick, that there must be a certain state of affairs which is the ultimate end at which everyone ought to aim; shows that ethical egoism is inconsistent with this assumption; and then unjustifiably accuses ethical egoism of being self-contradictory.
Granted that even the extreme forms of ethical egoism and ethical altruism are internally consistent, is there any reason to accept or to reject either of them?
(1) If ethical neutralism were true, they could both be rejected. Now the following argument can be produced in favour of ethical neutralism. On any theory except this it will sometimes be right for a person to do an act which will obviously produce less good or more evil than some other alternative act which is open to him at the time. E.g., it is often the case that A could either (i) do an act which would add something to his well-being at the cost of diminishing B 's by a certain amount, or (ii) do another act which would increase his own well-being rather less at the cost of diminishing B's very much less. Plainly A would in general be producing more good by doing the latter act than by doing the former. But, if ethical egoism be true, it would be his duty to do the former and to avoid doing the latter. Again, it is often the case that A could either (i) do an act which would add something to B's well-being at the cost of diminishing his own by a certain amount, or (ii) do another act which would increase B's well-being rather less and diminish his own very much less. Plainly A would in general be producing more good by doing the latter act than by doing the former. But, if ethical altruism be true, it would be his duty to do the former and to avoid doing the latter. I think, therefore, that ethical neutralism is the only one of the three types of theory which can be combined with the doctrine that the right act in any situation will always coincide with the optimific act in that situation. Since Utilitarians hold the latter view, they ought to hold the former; and so Sidgwick was right, as a Utilitarian, to lay down an axiom which is equivalent to ethical neutralism.
It is possible, however, to distinguish between what I call an "optimising" act, and what I have called an "optimific" act; and it might be possible to combine ethical altruism with the doctrine that the right act always coincides with the optimising act. I will now explain this distinction and justify this assertion. Suppose that a certain act á is done in a certain situation S, and that the amount of value in the universe is thereby changed. It is possible to distinguish two quite different contributions which this act may make to the amount of value in the world. They may be called its direct and its consequential contributions. The act may have qualities which make it intrinsically good or bad. Even if it has not, it will have non-causal relations to other factors in the contemporary and the past situation which forms its context; and in virtue of these the whole composed of the act and the situation may be better or worse than the situation by itself or the situation combined with a different act. Any value, positive or negative, which accrues in this way to the universe through the occurrence of this act may be called its "direct" contribution. Again, the act co-operates as a cause-factor with other factors in the contemporary situation and thus leads to a train of consequences which are different from those which would have followed if no act or a different act had been done. Any value or disvalue which accrues to the universe through the values or disvalues of the consequences of an act may be called its "consequential" contribution. The "total" contribution of an act consists of its direct and its consequential contributions. An "optimific" act in a given situation may be defined as one whose consequential contribution to the value in the universe is at least as great as that of any alternative act open to the agent. An "optimising" act in a given situation is one whose total contribution to the value in the universe is at least as great as that of any alternative act open to the agent.
Let us now apply these notions. Suppose that there is a situation in which A can either (i) do an act which will increase B's well-being at the cost of considerably diminishing his own, or (ii) do an act which would add rather less to B's well-being and diminish his own very much less. Suppose further that an act of self-sacrifice has, as such, a certain amount of moral value. Then it might be that the direct contribution which the former act would make, as an act of self-sacrifice, more than counter-balances the consequential diminution which it causes by decreasing the agent's own well-being. So an altruistic act might be the optimising act even when it is not the optimific act.
Now common-sense does ascribe considerable positive value to acts of voluntary self-sacrifice as such. It is therefore conceivable that the right act, on the extreme altruistic view, might always coincide with the optimising act. But it is not necessary that it should, and it seems most unlikely that it always would. For it seems easy to conceive situations in which the most altruistic act possible would increase the well-being of others very slightly and would diminish that of the agent very much, whilst some other possible act would increase the well-being of others only a little less and would positively increase that of the agent. In such a situation it is most unlikely that the most altruistic act would be an optimising act, even when its direct contribution to the goodness in the universe, as an act of self-sacrifice, was taken into account.
It is quite plain that no attempt on these lines to reconcile ethical egoism with the doctrine that the right act coincides with the optimising act would be plausible. For common-sense attaches no positive value to an act of sacrificing others for one's own benefit, as such. Therefore, when what would be the right act on the extreme egoistic view fails to coincide with the optimific act, it is impossible that it should coincide with the optimising act.
The upshot of this discussion is as follows. Many people find it self-evident that the right act in any situation must coincide with the optimific act. Anyone who does so can safely reject pure ethical egoism and pure ethical altruism, and will almost be forced to accept ethical neutralism. When the distinction between an optimising and an optimific act is pointed out to them many of those who thought it evident that the right act must coincide with the optimific act would be inclined to amend their doctrine by substituting "optimising" for "optimific." Such people could safely reject pure egoism. It is not impossible that the most altruistic act should coincide with the optimising act even when it fails to coincide with the optimific act. But, even if it always did so, this would be a merely contingent fact; whilst they hold that the coincidence between the right act and the optimising act is necessary, since they find it self-evident. And it is very unlikely that the most altruistic act would in fact always coincide with the optimising act. Therefore the substitution of "optimising" for "optimific" would make no difference in the end. Those who find the coincidence of the right act with the optimising act self-evident could safely reject both pure altruism and pure egoism, and would have to accept ethical neutralism as the only principle of distribution which is compatible with their axiom.
(2) So far we have considered the grounds for accepting ethical neutralism, and therefore the indirect reasons for rejecting ethical egoism and ethical altruism. We will now consider the attitude of common-sense towards each of the three alternatives when judged on its own merits, (i) Common-sense would reject pure ethical egoism out of hand as grossly immoral. It is, I think, doubtful whether anyone would accept ethical egoism unless, like Spinoza, he had already accepted psychological egoism. If a person is persuaded that it is psychologically impossible for anyone to act non-egoistically, he will have to hold that each man's duties are confined within the sphere which this psychological impossibility marks out. But common-sense does not accept psychological egoism, though many philosophers have done so; and on this point common-sense is right and these philosophers are tricked by certain rather subtle ambiguities of language.
(ii) The attitude of common-sense (at any rate in countries where there is a Christian tradition) towards pure ethical altruism is different. It would, with an uncomfortable recollection of some rather disturbing passages in the Sermon on the Mount, be inclined to describe the doctrine as quixotic or impracticable but hardly as immoral. Apart from the embarrassment which persons in a Christian country feel at saying or implying that Christ sometimes talked nonsense, there is a sound practical reason for this attitude. We realise that most people are far more likely to err on the egoistic than on the altruistic side; that in a world where so many people are too egoistic it is as well that some people should be too altruistic; and that there is something heroic in the power to sacrifice one's own happiness for the good of others. We therefore hesitate to condemn publicly even exhibitions of altruism which we privately regard as excessive.
(iii) Although common-sense rejects pure egoism and does not really accept pure altruism, I do not think that it is prepared to admit neutralism without a struggle. It would regard neutralism as in some directions immorally selfish and in other directions immorally universalistic. It undoubtedly holds that each of us has more urgent obligations to benefit certain persons who are specially related to him, e.g., his parents, his children, his fellow-countrymen, his benefactors, etc., than to benefit others who are not thus related to him. And it would hold that the special urgency of these obligations is founded directly on these special relations.
(iv) The ideal of common-sense then is neither pure egoism nor pure altruism nor neutralism. I think it may be best described as "Self-referential Altruism." I will now explain what I mean by this. Each of us is born as a member of a family, a citizen of a country, and so on. In the course of his life he voluntarily or involuntarily becomes a member of many other social groups, e.g., a school, a college, a church, a trades-union, etc. Again, he gets into special relations of love and friendship with certain individuals who are not blood-relations of his. Now the view of common-sense is roughly as follows.
Each of us has a certain obligation to himself, as such. I do not think that common-sense considers that a person is under any obligation to make himself happy, i.e., to "give himself a good time." Possibly this is because most people have so strong a natural tendency to aim at getting the experiences which they expect to like and at avoiding those which they expect to dislike. On the other hand, the obligation to develop one's own powers and capabilities to the utmost, and to organise one's various dispositions into a good pattern is considered to be a strong one. This kind of action often goes very much against the grain, since it conflicts with natural laziness and a natural tendency to aim at the easier and more passive kinds of good experience. The obligation to make others happy and to prevent or alleviate their unhappiness is held to vary in urgency according to the nature of their relation to oneself. It is weakest when the others stand in no relation to the agent except that of being fellow sentient beings. It is strongest when the others are the agent's parents or his children, or non-relatives whom he loves and by whom he is loved, or persons from whom he has received special benefits deliberately bestowed at some cost to the giver.
A person's obligation towards A is more urgent than his obligation towards B if it would be right for him to aim at the well-being of A before considering that of B, and to begin to consider that of B only after he had secured a certain minimum for A. The greater this minimum is, the greater is the relative urgency of his obligation towards A as compared with his obligation towards B.
Now common-sense holds that it is one's duty to be prepared to sacrifice a considerable amount of one's own well-being to secure a quite moderate addition to the net well-being of one's parents or children or benefactors, if this be the only way in which one can secure it. But it does not consider that a person has a duty to sacrifice much of his own well-being in order to secure even a substantial addition to the net well-being of others who stand in no specially intimate relations to him.
Common-sense draws a sharp...
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