By Bertrand Russell|
From Religion and Science(Oxford University Press, 1961)
Those who maintain the insufficiency of
science, as we have seen in the last two chapters, appeal to the
fact that science has nothing to say about "values."
This I admit; but when it is inferred that ethics contains truths
which cannot be proved or disproved by science, I disagree. The
matter is one on which it is not altogether easy to think clearly,
and my own views on it are quite different from what they were
thirty years ago. But it is necessary to be clear about it if
we are to appraise such arguments as those in support of Cosmic
Purpose. As there is no consensus of opinion about ethics, it
must be understood that what follows is my personal belief, not
the dictum of science.
The study of ethics, traditionally, consists
of two parts, one concerned with moral rules, the other with what
is good on its own account. Rules of conduct, many of which have
a ritual origin, play a great part in the lives of savages and
primitive peoples. It is forbidden to eat out of the chief's dish,
or to seethe the kid in its mother's milk; it is commanded to
offer sacrifices to the gods, which, at a certain stage of development,
are thought most acceptable if they are human beings. Other moral
rules, such as the prohibition of murder and theft, have a more
obvious social utility, and survive the decay of the primitive
theological systems with which they were originally associated.
But as men grow more reflective there is a tendency to lay less
stress on rules and more on states of mind. This comes from two
sources - philosophy and mystical religion. We are all familiar
with passages in the prophets and the gospels, in which purity
of heart is set above meticulous observance of the Law; and St.
Paul's famous praise of charity, or love, teaches the same principle.
The same thing will be found in all great mystics, Christian and
non-Christian: what they values is a state of mind, out of which,
as they hold, right conduct must ensue; rules seem to them external,
and insufficiently adaptable to circumstances.
One of the ways in which the need of appealing
to external rules of conduct has been avoided has been the belief
in "conscience," which has been especially important
in Protestant ethics. It has been supposed that God reveals to
each human heart what is right and what is wrong, so that, in
order to avoid sin, we have only to listen to the inner voice.
There are, however, two difficulties in this theory: first, that
conscience says different things to different people; secondly,
that the study of the unconscious has given us an understanding
of the mundane causes of conscientious feelings.
As to the different deliverances of conscience:
George III's conscience told him that he must not grant Catholic
Emancipation, as, if he did, he would have committed perjury in
taking the Coronation Oath, but later monarchs have had no such
scruples. Conscience leads some to condemn the spoliation of the
rich by the poor, as advocated by communists; and others to condemn
exploitation of the poor by the rich, as practised by capitalists.
It tells one man that he ought to defend his country in case of
invasion, while it tells another that all participation in warfare
is wicked. During the War, the authorities, few of whom had studied
ethics, found conscience very puzzling, and were led to some curious
decisions, such as that a man might have conscientious scruples
against fighting himself, but not against working on the fields
so as to make possible the conscription of another man. They held
also that, while conscience might disapprove of all war, it could
not, failing that extreme position, disapprove of the war then
in progress. Those who, for whatever reason, thought it wrong
to fight, were compelled to state their position in terms of this
somewhat primitive and unscientific conception of "conscience."
The diversity in the deliverances of conscience
is what is to be expected when its origin is understood. In early
youth, certain classes of acts meet with approval, and others
with disapproval; and by the normal process of association, pleasure
and discomfort gradually attach themselves to the acts, and not
merely to the approval and disapproval respectively produced by
them. As time goes on, we may forget all about our early moral
training, but we shall still feel uncomfortable about certain
kinds of actions, while others will give us a glow of virtue.
To introspection, these feelings are mysterious, since we no longer
remember the circumstances which originally caused them; and therefore
it is natural to attribute them to the voice of God in the heart.
But in fact conscience is a product of education, and can be trained
to approve or disapprove, in the great majority of mankind, as
educators may see fit. While, therefore, it is right to wish to
liberate ethics from external moral rules, this can hardly be
satisfactorily achieved by means of the notion of "conscience."
Philosophers, by a different road, have
arrived at a different position in which, also, moral rules of
conduct have a subordinate place. They have framed the concept
of the Good, by which they mean (roughly speaking) that which,
in itself and apart from its consequences, we should wish to see
existing - or, if they are theists, that which is pleasing to
God. Most people would agree that happiness is preferable to unhappiness,
friendliness to unfriendliness, and so on. Moral rules, according
to this view, are justified if they promote the existence of what
is good on its own account, but not otherwise. The prohibition
of murder, in the vast majority of cases, can be justified by
its effects, but the practice of burning widows on their husband's
funeral pyre cannot. The former rule, therefore, should be retained,
but not the latter. Even the best moral rules, however, will have
some exceptions, since no class of actions always
has bad results. We have thus three different senses in which
an act may be ethically commendable: (1) it may be in accordance
with the received moral code; (2) it may be sincerely intended
to have good effects; (3) it may in fact have good effects. The
third sense, however, is generally considered inadmissible in
morals. According to orthodox theology, Judas Iscariot's act of
betrayal had good consequences, since it was necessary for the
Atonement; but it was not on this account laudable.
Different philosophers have formed different
conceptions of the Good. Some hold that it consists in the knowledge
and love of God; others in universal love; others in the enjoyment
of beauty; and yet others in pleasure. The Good once defined,
the rest of ethics follows: we ought to act in the way we believe
most likely to create as much good as possible, and as little
as possible of its correlative evil. The framing of moral rules,
so long as the ultimate Good is supposed known, is matter for
science. For example: should capital punishment be inflicted on
theft, or only for murder, or not at all? Jeremy Bentham, who
considered pleasure to be the Good, devoted himself to working
out what criminal code would most promote pleasure, and concluded
that it ought to be much less severe than that prevailing in his
day. All this, except the proposition that pleasure is the Good,
comes within the sphere of science.
But when we try to be definite as to what
we mean when we say that this or that is "the Good,"
we find ourselves involved in very great difficulties. Bentham's
creed that pleasure is the Good roused furious opposition, and
was said to be a pig's philosophy. Neither he nor his opponents
could advance any argument. In a scientific question, evidence
can be adduced on both sides, and in the end, one side is seen
to have the better case - or, if this does not happen, the question
is left undecided. But in a question as to whether this or that
is the ultimate Good, there is no evidence either way; each disputant
can only appeal to his own emotions, and employ such rhetorical
devices as shall rouse similar emotions in others.
Take, for example, a question which has
come to be important in practical policies. Bentham held that
one man's pleasure has the same ethical importance as another
man's, provided the quantities are equal; and on this ground he
was led to advocate democracy. Nietzsche, on the contrary, held
that only the great man can be regarded as important on his own
account, and that the bulk of mankind are only means to his well-being.
He viewed ordinary men as many people view animals: he thought
it justifiable to make use of them, not for their own good, but
for that of the superman, and this view has since been adopted
to justify the abandonment of democracy, We have here a sharp
disagreement of great practical importance, but we have absolutely
no means, of a scientific or intellectual kind, by which to persuade
either party that the other is in the right. There are, it is
true, ways of altering men's opinions on such subjects, but they
are all emotional, not intellectual.
Question as to "values" - that
is to say, as to what is good or bad on its own account, independently
of its effects - lie outside the domain of science, as the defenders
of religion emphatically assert. I think that in this they are
right, but I draw the further conclusion, which they do not draw,
that questions as to "values" lie wholly outside the
domain of knowledge. That is to say, when we assert that this
or that has "value," we are giving expression to our
own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal
feelings were different. To make this clear, we must try to analyse
the conception of the Good.
It is obvious, to begin with, that the whole
idea of good and bad has some connection with desire. Prima
facie, anything that we all desire is "good," and
anything that we all dread is "bad." If we all agreed
in our desires, the matter could be left there, but unfortunately
our desires conflict. If I say "what I want is good,"
my neighbour will say "No, what I want." Ethics
is an attempt - though not, I think, a successful one - to escape
from this subjectivity. I shall naturally try to show, in my dispute
with my neighbour, that my desires have some quality which makes
them more worthy of respect than his. If I want to preserve a
right of way, I shall appeal to the landless inhabitants of the
district; but he, on his side, will appeal to the landowners.
I shall say: "What use is the beauty of the countryside if
no one sees it?" He will retort: "What beauty will be
left if trippers are allowed to spread devastation?" Each
tries to enlist allies by showing that his own desires harmonize
with those of other people. When this is obviously impossible,
as in the case of a burglar, the man is condemned by public opinion,
and his ethical status is that of a sinner.
Ethics is thus closely related to politics:
it is an attempt to bring the collective desires of a group to
bear upon individuals; or, conversely, it is an attempt by an
individual to cause his desires to become those of his group.
This latter is, of course, only possible if his desires are not
too obviously opposed to the general interest: the burglar will
hardly attempt to persuade people that he is doing them good,
though plutocrats make similar attempts, and often succeed. When
our desires are for things which all can enjoy in common, it seems
not unreasonable to hope that others may concur; thus the philosopher
who values Truth, Goodness and Beauty seems, to himself, to be
not merely expressing his own desires, but pointing the way to
the welfare of all mankind. Unlike the burglar, he is able to
believe that his desires are for something that has value in an
Ethics is an attempt to give universal,
and not merely personal, importance to certain of our desires,
I say "certain" of our desires, because in regard to
some of them this is obviously impossible, as we saw in the case
of the burglar. The man who makes money on the Stock Exchange
by means of some secret knowledge does not wish others to be equally
well informed: Truth (in so far as he values it) is for him a
private possession, not the general human good that it is for
the philosopher. The philosopher may, it is true, sink to the
level of the stock-jobber, as when he claims priority for a discovery.
But this is a lapse: in his purely philosophic capacity, he wants
only to enjoy the contemplation of Truth, in doing which he in
no way interferes with others who wish to do likewise.
To seem to give universal importance to
our desires - which is the business of ethics - may be attempted
from two points of view, that of the legislator, and that of the
preacher. Let us take the legislator first.
I will assume, for the sake of argument,
that the legislator is personally disinterested. That is to say,
when he recognizes one of his desired as being concerned only
with his own welfare, he does not let it influence him in framing
the laws; for example, his code is not designed to increase his
personal fortune. But he has other desired which seem to him impersonal.
He may believe in an ordered hierarchy from king to peasant, or
from mine-owner to black indentured labourer. He may believe that
women should be submissive to men. He may hold that the spread
of knowledge in the lower classes is dangerous. And so o and so
on. He will then, if he can, so construct his code that conduct
promoting the ends which he values shall, as far as possible,
be in accordance with individual self-interest; and he will establish
a system of moral instruction which will, where it succeeds, make
men feel wicked if they pursue other purposes than his.
Thus "virtue" will come to be in fact, though not in
subjective estimation, subservience to the desires of the legislator,
in so far as he himself considers these desires worthy to be universalized.
The standpoint and method of the preacher
are necessarily somewhat different, because he does not control
the machinery of the State, and therefore cannot produce an artificial
harmony between his desires and those of others. His only method
is to try to rouse in others the same desires that he feels himself,
and for this purpose his appeal must be to the emotions. Thus
Ruskin caused people to like Gothic architecture, not by argument,
but by the moving effect of rhythmical prose. Uncle Tom's Cabin
helped to make people think slavery an evil by causing them to
imagine themselves as slaves. Every attempt to persuade people
that something is good (or bad) in itself, and not merely in its
effects, depends upon the art of rousing feelings, not upon an
appeal to evidence. In every case the preacher's skill consists
in creating in others emotions similar to his own - or dissimilar,
if he is a hypocrite. I am not saying this as a criticism of the
preacher, but as an analysis of this essential character of his
When a man says "this is good in itself,"
he seems to be making a statement, just as much as if he
had said "this is square" or "this is sweet."
I believe this to be a mistake. I think that what the man really
means is: "I wish everybody to desire this," or rather
"Would that everybody desired this." If what he ways
is interpreted as a statement , it is merely an affirmation of
his own personal wish; if, on the other hand, it is interpreted
in a general way, it states nothing, but merely desires something.
The wish, as an occurrence, is personal, but what it desires is
universal. It is, I think, this curious interlocking of the particular
and the universal which has caused so much confusion in ethics.
The matter may perhaps become clearer by
contrasting an ethical sentence with one which makes a statement.
If I say "all Chinese are Buddhists," I can be refuted
by the production of a Chinese Christian or Mohammedan. If I say
"I believe that all Chinese are Buddhists," I cannot
be refuted by any evidence from China, but only by evidence that
I do not believe what I say; for what I am asserting is only something
about my own state of mind. If, now, a philosopher says "Beauty
is good," I may interpret him as meaning either "Would
that everybody loved the beautiful" (which corresponds to
"all Chinese are Buddhists") or "I wish that everybody
loved the beautiful" (which corresponds to "I believe
that all Chinese are Buddhists"). The first of these makes
no assertion, but expresses a wish; since it affirms nothing,
it is logically impossible that there should be evidence for or
against it, or for it to possess either truth or falsehood. The
second sentence, instead of being merely optative, does make a
statement, but it is one about the philosopher's state of mind,
and it could only be refuted by evidence that he does not have
the wish that he says he has. This second sentence does not belong
to ethics, but to psychology or biography. The first sentence,
which does belong to ethics, expresses a desire for something,
but asserts nothing.
Ethics, if the above analysis is correct,
contains no statements, whether true or false, but consists of
desires of a certain general kind, namely such as are concerned
with the desires of mankind in general - and of gods, angels,
and devils, if they exist. Science can discuss the causes of desires,
and the means for realizing them, but it cannot contain any genuinely
ethical sentences, because it is concerned with what is true or
The theory which I have been advocating
is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity"
of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if
two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to
any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says
"oysters are good" and another says "I think
they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue
about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to
values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them
so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted
than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete
impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that
has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know
values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind
man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways
of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which
most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such
ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case
of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference
as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference
is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth.
The consequences of this doctrine are considerable.
In the first place, there can be no such thing as "sin"
in any absolute sense; what one man calls "sin" another
may call "virtue," and though they may dislike each
other on account of this difference, neither can convict the other
of intellectual error. Punishment cannot be justified on the ground
that the criminal is "wicked," but only on the ground
that he has behaved in a way which others wish to discourage.
Hell, as a place of punishment for sinners, becomes quite irrational.
In the second place, it is impossible to
uphold the way of speaking about values which is common among
those who believe in Cosmic Purpose. Their argument is that certain
things which have been evolved are "good," and therefore
the world must have had a purpose which was ethically admirable.
In the language of subjective values, this argument becomes: "Some
things in the world are to our liking, and therefore they must
have been created by a Being with our tastes, Whom, therefore,
we also like, and Who, consequently is good." Now it seems
fairly evident that, if creatures having likes and dislikes were
to exist at all, they were pretty sure to like some things
in their environment, since otherwise they would find life intolerable.
Our values have been evolved along with the rest of our constitution,
and nothing as to any original purpose can be inferred from the
fact that they are what they are.
Those who believe in "objective"
values often contend that the view which I have been advocating
has immoral consequences. This seems to me to be due to faulty
reasoning. There are, as has already been said, certain ethical
consequences of the doctrine of subjective values, of which the
most important is the rejection of vindictive punishment and the
notion of "sin." But the more general consequences which
are feared, such at the decay of all sense of moral obligation,
are not to be logically deduced. Moral obligation, if it is to
influence conduct, must consist not merely of a belief, but of
a desire. The desire, I may be told, is the desire to be "good"
in a sense which I no longer allow. But when we analyse the desire
to be "good" it generally resolves itself into a desire
to be approved, or, alternatively, to act so as to bring about
certain general consequences which we desire. We have wishes which
are not purely personal, and, if we had not, no amount of ethical
teaching would influence our conduct except through fear of disapproval.
The sort of life that most of us admire is one which is guided
by large impersonal desires; now such desires can no doubt be
encouraged by example, education, and knowledge, but they can
hardly be created by the mere abstract belief that they are good,
nor discouraged by an analysis of what is meant by the word "good."
When we contemplate the human race, we may
desire that it should be happy, or healthy, or intelligent, or
warlike, and so on. Any one of these desires, if it is strong,
will produce its own morality; but if we have no such general
desires, our conduct, whatever our ethic may be, will only serve
social purposes in so far as self-interest and the interests of
society are in harmony. It is the business of wise institutions
to create such harmony as far as possible, and for the rest, whatever
may be our theoretical definition of value, we must depend upon
the existence of impersonal desires. When you meet a man with
whom you have a fundamental ethical disagreement - for example,
if you think that all men count equally, while he selects a class
as alone important - you will find yourself no better to cope
with him if you believe in objective values than if you do not.
In either case, you can only influence his conduct through influencing
his desires: if you succeed in that, his ethic will change, and
if not, not.
Some people feel that if a general desire,
say for the happiness of mankind, has not the sanction of absolute
good, it is in some way irrational. This is due to a lingering
belief in objective values. A desire cannot, in itself, be either
rational or irrational. It may conflict with other desires, and
therefore lead to unhappiness; it may rouse opposition in others,
and therefore be incapable of gratification. But it cannot be
considered "irrational" merely because no reason can
be given for feeling it. We may desire A because it is a means
to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must
come to something which we desire for no reason, but not on that
account "irrationally." All systems of ethics embody
the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed
in a mist of words. Our desire are, in fact, more general and
less purely selfish than many moralists imagine; if it were not
so, no theory of ethics would make moral improvement possible.
It is, in fact, not by ethical theory, but by the cultivation
of large and generous desires through intelligence, happiness,
and freedom from fear, that men can be brought to act more than
they do at present in a manner that is consistent with the general
happiness of mankind. Whatever our definition of the "Good,"
and whether we believe it to be subjective or objective, those
who do not desire the happiness of mankind will not endeavour
to further it, while those who do desire it will do what they
can to bring it about.
I conclude that, while it is true that science
cannot decide questions of values, that is because they cannot
be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of
truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be
attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover,
mankind cannot know.
Compare the following
advice by a contemporary of Aristotle (Chinese, not Greek): "A
ruler should not listen to those who believe in people having
opinions of their own and in the importance of the individual.
Such teachings cause men to withdraw to quiet places and hide
away in caves or in mountains, there to rail at the prevailing
government, sneer at those in authority, belittle the importance
of rank and emoluments, and despise all who hold official posts."
Walsey, The Way and its Power,