Metaphysical Ethics-G. E. Moore 1903

Chapter IV: Metaphysical Ethics

Principia Ethica-G. E. Moore 1903

§ 66.
In this chapter I propose to deal with a type of ethical theory which is exemplified in the ethical views of the Stoics, of Spinoza, of Kant, and especially of a number of modern writers, whose views in this respect are mainly due to the influence of Hegel. These ethical theories have this in common, that they use some metaphysical proposition as a ground for inferring some fundamental proposition of Ethics. They all imply, and many of them expressly hold, that ethical truths follow logically from metaphysical truths—that Ethics should be based on Metaphysics. And the result is that they all describe the Supreme Good in metaphysical terms.

What, then, is to be understood by metaphysical? I use the term, as I explained in Chapter II, in opposition to natural. I call those philosophers preeminently metaphysical who have recognised most clearly that not everything which is is a natural object. Metaphysicians have, therefore, the great merit of insisting that our knowledge is not confined to the things which we can touch and see and feel. They have always been much occupied, not only with that other class of natural objects which consists in mental facts, but also with the class of objects or properties of objects, which certainly do not exist in time, are not therefore parts of Nature, and which, in fact, do not exist at all. To this class, as I have said, belongs what we mean by the adjective good. It is not goodness, but only the things or qualities which are good, which can exist in time—can have duration, and begin and cease to exist—can be objects of perception. But the most prominent members of this class are perhaps numbers. It is quite certain that two natural objects may exist; but it is equally certain that two itself does not exist and never can. Two and two are four. But that does not mean that either two or four exists. Yet it certainly means something. Two is somehow, although it does not exist. And it is not only simple terms of propositions—the objects about which we know truths—that belong to this class. The truths which we know about them form, perhaps, a still more important subdivision. No truth does, in fact, exist; but this is peculiarly obvious with regard to truths like Two and two are four, in which the objects, about which they are truths, do not exist either. It is with the recognition of such truths as these—truths which have been called universal—and of their essential unlikeness to what we can touch and see and feel, that metaphysics proper begins. Such universal truths have always played a large part in the reasonings of metaphysicians from Plato’s time till now; and that they have directed attention to the difference between these truths and what I have called natural objects is the chief contribution to knowledge which distinguishes them from that other class of philosophers—empirical philosophers—to which most Englishmen have belonged.

But though, if we are to define metaphysics by the contribution which it has actually made to knowledge, we should have to say that it has emphasized the importance of objects which do not exist at all, metaphysicians themselves have not recognised this. They have indeed recognised and insisted that there are, or may be, objects of knowledge which do not exist in time, or at least which we cannot perceive; and in recognising the possibility of these, as an object of investigation, they have, it may be admitted, done a service to mankind. But they have in general supposed that whatever does not exist in time, must at least exist elsewhere, if it is to be at all—that, whatever does not exist in Nature, must exist in some supersensible reality, whether timeless or not. Consequently they have held that the truths with which they have been occupied, over and above the objects of perception, were in some way truths about such supersensible reality. If, therefore, we are to define metaphysics not by what it has attained, but by what it has attempted, we should say that it consists in the attempt to obtain knowledge, by processes of reasoning, of what exists but is not a part of Nature. Metaphysicians have actually held that they could give us such knowledge of non-natural existence. They have held that their science consists in giving us such knowledge as can be supported by reasons, of that supersensible reality of which religion professes to give us a fuller knowledge, without any reasons. When, therefore, I spoke above of metaphysical propositions, I meant propositions about the existence of something supersensible—of something which is not an object of perception, and which cannot be inferred from what is an object of perception by the same rules of inference by which we infer the past and future of what we call Nature. And when I spoke of metaphysical terms, I meant terms which refer to qualities of such a supersensible reality, which do not belong to anything natural. I admit that metaphysics should investigate what reasons there may be for belief in such a supersensible reality; since I hold that its peculiar province is the truth about all objects which are not natural objects. And I think that the most prominent characteristic of metaphysics, in history, has been its profession to prove the truth about non-natural existents. I define metaphysical, therefore, by a reference to supersensible reality; although I think that the only non-natural objects, about which it has succeeded in obtaining truth, are objects which do not exist at all.

So much, I hope, will suffice to explain what I mean by the term metaphysical, and to shew that it refers to a clear and important distinction. It was not necessary for my purpose to make the definition exhaustive or to shew that it corresponds in essentials with established usage. The distinction between Nature and a supersensible reality is very familiar and very important: and since the metaphysician endeavours to prove things with regard to a supersensible reality, and since he deals largely in truths which are not mere natural facts, it is plain that his arguments, and errors (if any), will be of a more subtle kind than those which I have dealt with under the name of Naturalism. For these two reasons it seemed convenient to treat Metaphysical Ethics by themselves.

§ 67.
I have said that those systems of Ethics, which I propose to call Metaphysical, are characterised by the fact that they describe the Supreme Good in metaphysical terms; and this has now to been explained as meaning that they describe it in terms of something which (they hold) does exist, but does not exist in Nature—in terms of a supersensible reality. A Metaphysical Ethics is marked by the fact that it makes the assertion: That which would be perfectly good is something which exists, but is not natural; that which has some characteristic possessed by a supersensible reality. Such an assertion was made by the Stoics when they asserted that a life in accordance with Nature was perfect. For they did not mean by Nature, what I have so defined, but something supersensible which they inferred to exist, and which they held to be perfectly good. Such an assertion, again, is made by Spinoza when he tells us that we are more or less perfect, in proportion as we are more or less closely united with Absolute Substance by the intellectual love of God. Such an assertion is made by Kant when he tells us that his Kingdom of Ends is the ideal. And such, finally, is made by modern writers who tell us that the final and perfect end is to realise our true selves—a self different both from the whole and from any part of that which exists here and now in Nature.

Now it is plain that such ethical principles have a merit, not possessed by Naturalism, in recognising that for perfect goodness much more is required than any quantity of what exists here and now or can be inferred as likely to exist in the future. And moreover it is quite possible that their assertions should be true, if we only understand them to assert that something which is real possesses all the characteristics necessary for perfect goodness. But this is not all that they assert. They also imply, as I said, that this ethical proposition follows from some proposition which is metaphysical: that the question What is real? has some logical bearing upon the question What is good? It was for this reason that I described Metaphysical Ethics in Chapter II as based upon the naturalistic fallacy. And that a knowledge of what is real supplies reasons for holding certain things to be good in themselves is either implied or expressly asserted by all those who define the Supreme Good in metaphysical terms. This contention is part of what is meant by saying that Ethics should be based on Metaphysics. It is meant that some knowledge of supersensible reality is necessary as a premise for correct conclusions as to what ought to exist. This view is, for instance, plainly expressed in the following statements: The truth is that the theory of Ethics which seems most satisfactory has a metaphysical basis……If we rest our view of Ethics on the idea of the development of the ideal self or of the rational universe, the significance of this cannot be made fully apparent without a metaphysical examination of the nature of self; nor can its validity be established except by a discussion of the reality of the rational universe. The validity of an ethical conclusion about the nature of the ideal, it is here asserted, cannot be established except by considering the question whether that ideal is real. Such an assertion involves the naturalistic fallacy. It rests upon the failure to perceive that any truth which asserts This is good in itself is quite unique in kind—that it cannot be reduced to any assertion about reality, and therefore must remain unaffected by any conclusions we may reach about the nature of reality. This confusion as to the unique nature of ethical truths is, I have said, involved in all those ethical theories which I have called metaphysical. It is plain that, but for some confusion of the sort, no-one would think it worth while even to describe the Supreme Good in metaphysical terms. If, for instance, we are told that the ideal consists in the realisation of the true self, the very words suggest that the fact that the self in question is true is supposed to have some bearing on the fact that it is good. All the ethical truth which can possibly be conveyed by such an assertion would be just as well conveyed by saying that the ideal consisted in the realisation of a particular kind of self, which might be either real or purely imaginary. Metaphysical Ethics, then, involves the supposition that Ethics can be based on Metaphysics; and our first concern with them is to make clear that this supposition must be false.


§ 67, n. 1: Prof. J. S. Mackenzie, A Manual of Ethics, 4th ed., p. 431. The italics are mine.


§ 68.
In what way can the nature of supersensible reality possibly have a bearing upon Ethics?

I have distinguished two kinds of ethical questions, which are far too commonly confused with one another. Ethics, as commonly understood, has to answer both the question What ought to be? and the question What ought we to do? The second of these questions can only be answered by considering what effects our actions will have. A complete answer to it would give us that department of Ethics which may be called the doctrine of means or practical Ethics. And upon this department of ethical enquiry it is plain that the nature of a supersensible reality may have a bearing. If, for instance, Metaphysics could tell us not only that we are immortal, but also, in any degree, what effects our actions in this life will have upon our condition in a future one, such information would have an undoubted bearing upon the question what we ought to do. The Christian doctrine of heaven and hell are in this way highly relevant to practical Ethics. But it is worthy of notice that the most characteristic doctrines of Metaphysics are such as either have no such bearing upon practical Ethics or have a purely negative bearing—involving the conclusion that there is nothing which we ought to do at all. They profess to tell us the nature not of a future reality, but of one that is eternal and which therefore no actions of ours can have power to alter. Such information may indeed have relevance to practical Ethics, but it must be of a purely negative kind. For, if it holds, not only that such an eternal reality exists, but also, as is commonly the case, that nothing else is real—that nothing either has been, is now, or will be real in time—then truly it will follow that nothing we can do will ever bring any good to pass. For it is certain that our actions can only affect the future; and if nothing can be real in the future, we can certainly not hope ever to make any good thing real. It would follow, then, that there can be nothing which we ought to do. We cannot possibly do any good; for neither our efforts, nor any result which they may seem to effect, have any real existence. But this consequence, though it follows strictly from many metaphysical doctrines, is rarely drawn. Although a metaphysician may say that nothing is real but that which is eternal, he will generally allow that there is some reality also in the temporal: and his doctrine of an eternal reality need not interfere with practical Ethics, if he allows that, however good the eternal reality may be, yet some things will also exist in time, and that the existence of some will be better than that of others. It is, however, worth while to insist upon this point, because it is rarely fully realised.

If it is maintained that there is any validity at all in practical Ethics—that any proposition which asserts We ought to do so and so can have any truth—this contention can only be consistent with the Metaphysics of an eternal reality, under two conditions. One of these is, (1) that the true eternal reality, which is to be our guide, cannot, as is implied by calling it true, be the only true reality. For a moral rule, bidding us realise a certain end, can only be justified, if it is possible that that end should, at least partially, be realised. Unless our efforts can effect the real existence of some good, however little, we certainly have no reason for making them. And if the eternal reality is the sole reality, then nothing good can possibly exist in time: we can only be told to try to bring into existence something which we know beforehand cannot possibly exist. If it is said that what exists in time can only be a manifestation of the true reality, it must at least be allowed that that manifestation is another true reality—a good which we really can cause to exist; for the production of something quite unreal, even if it were possible, cannot be a reasonable end of action. But if the manifestation of that which eternally exists is real, then that which eternally exists is not the sole reality.

And the second condition which follows from such a metaphysical principle of Ethics, is (2) that the eternal reality cannot be perfect—cannot be the sole good. For just as a reasonable rule of conduct requires that what we are told to realise should be capable of being truly real, so it requires that the realisation of this ideal shall be truly good. It is just that which can be realised by our efforts—the appearance of the eternal in time, or whatsoever else is allowed to be attainable—which must be truly good, if it is to be worth our efforts. That the eternal reality is good, will by no means justify us in aiming at its manifestation, unless that manifestation itself be also good. For the manifestation is different from the reality: its difference is allowed, when we are told that it can be made to exist, whereas the reality itself exists unalterably. And the existence of this manifestation is the only thing which we can hope to effect: that also is admitted. If, therefore, the moral maxim is to be justified, it is the existence of this manifestation, as distinguished from the existence of its corresponding reality, which must be truly good. The reality may be good too: but to justify the statement that we ought to produce anything, it must be maintained, that just that thing itself, and not something else which may be like it, is truly good. If it is not true that the existence of the manifestation will add something to the sum of good in the Universe, then we have no reason to aim at making it exist; and if it is true that it will add something to the sum of good, then the existence of that which is eternal cannot be perfect by itself—it cannot include the whole of possible goods.

Metaphysics, then, will have a bearing upon practical Ethics—upon the question what we ought to do—if it can tell us anything about the future consequences of our actions beyond what can be established by ordinary inductive reasoning. But the most characteristic metaphysical doctrines, those which profess to tell us not about the future but about the nature of an eternal reality, can either have no bearing upon this practical question or else must have a purely destructive bearing. For it is plain that what exists eternally cannot be affected by our actions; and only what is affected by our actions can have a bearing on their value as means. But the nature of an eternal reality either admits no inference as to the results of our actions, except in so far as it can also give us information about the future (and how it can do this is not plain), or else, if, as is usual, it is maintained to be the sole reality and the sole good, it shews that no results of our actions can have any value whatever.

§ 69.
But this bearing upon practical Ethics, such as it is, is not what is commonly meant when it is maintained that Ethics must be based on Metaphysics. It is not the assertion of this relation which I have taken to be characteristic of Metaphysical Ethics. What metaphysical writers commonly maintain is not merely that Metaphysics can help us to decide what the effects of our actions will be, but that it can tell us which among possible effects will be good and which will be bad. They profess that Metaphysics is a necessary basis for an answer to that other and primary ethical question: What ought to be? What is good in itself? That no truth about what is real can have any logical bearing upon the answer to this question has been proved in Chapter I. To suppose that it has, implies the naturalistic fallacy. All that remains for us to do is, therefore, to expose the main errors which seem to have lent plausibility to this fallacy in its metaphysical form. If we ask: What bearing can Metaphysics have upon the question, What is good? the only possible answer is: Obviously and absolutely none. We can only hope to enforce conviction that this answer is the only true one by answering the question: Why has it been supposed to have such a bearing? We shall find that metaphysical writers seem to have failed to distinguish the primary ethical question: What is good? from various other questions; and to point out these distinctions will serve to confirm the view that their profession to base Ethics on Metaphysics is solely due to confusion.

§ 70.
And, first of all, there is an ambiguity in the very question: What is good? to which it seems some influence must be attributed. The question may mean either: Which among existing things are good? or else: What sort of things are good, what are the things which, whether they are real or not, ought to be real? And of these two questions it is plain that to answer the first, we must know both the answer to the second and also the answer to this question: What is real? It asks us for a catalogue of all the good things there are in the Universe and also which of them are good. Upon this question then our Metaphysics would have a bearing, if it can tell us what is real. It would help us to complete the list of things which are both real and good. But to make such a list is not the business of Ethics. So far as it enquires What is good? its business is finished when it has completed the list of things which ought to exist, whether they do exist or not. And if our Metaphysics is to have any bearing upon this part of the ethical problem, it must be because the fact that something is real gives a reason for thinking that it or something else is good, whether it be real or not. That any such fact can give any such reason is impossible; but it may be suspected that the contrary supposition has been encouraged by the failure to distinguish between the assertion This is good, when it means This sort of thing is good, or This would be good, if it existed, and the assertion This existing thing is good. The latter proposition obviously cannot be true, unless the thing exists; and hence the proof of the thing’s existence is a necessary step to its proof. Both propositions, however, in spite of this immense difference between them, are commonly expressed in the same terms. We use the same words, when we assert an ethical proposition about a subject that is actually real, and when we assert it about a subject considered as merely possible.

In this ambiguity of language we have, then, a possible source of error with regard to the bearing of truths that assert reality upon truths that assert goodness. And that this ambiguity is actually neglected by those metaphysical writers who profess that the Supreme Good consists in an eternal reality may be shewn in the following way. We have seen, in considering the possible bearing of Metaphysics upon Practical Ethics, that, since what exists eternally cannot possibly be affected by our actions, no practical maxim can possibly be true, if the sole reality is eternal. This fact, as I said, is commonly neglected by metaphysical writers: they assert both of the two contradictory propositions that the sole reality is eternal and that its realisation in the future is a good too. Prof. Mackenzie, we saw, asserts that we ought to aim at the realisation of the true self or the rational universe: and yet Prof. Mackenzie holds, as the word true plainly implies, that both the true self and the rational universe are eternally real. Here we have already a contradiction in the supposition that what is eternally real can be realised in the future; and it is comparatively unimportant whether or not we add to this the further contradiction involved in the supposition that the eternal is the sole reality. That such a contradiction should be supposed valid can only be explained by a neglect of the distinction between a real subject and the character which that real subject possesses. What is eternally real may, indeed, be realised in the future, if by this be only meant the sort of thing which is eternally real. But when we assert that a thing is good, what we mean is that its existence or reality is good; and the eternal existence of a thing cannot possibly be the same good as the existence in time of what, in a necessary sense, is nevertheless the same thing. When, therefore, we are told that the future realisation of the true self is good, this can at most only mean that the future realisation of a self exactly like the self, which is true and exists eternally, is good. If this fact were clearly stated, instead of consistently ignored, by those who advocate the view that the Supreme Good can be defined in these metaphysical terms, it seems probable that the view that a knowledge of reality is necessary to a knowledge of the Supreme Good would lose part of its plausibility. That that at which we ought to aim cannot possibly be that which is eternally real, even if it be exactly like it; and that the eternal reality cannot possibly be the sole good—these two propositions seem sensibly to diminish the probability that Ethics must be based on Metaphysics. It is not very plausible to maintain that because one thing is real, therefore something like it, which is not real, would be good. It seems, therefore, that some of the plausibility of Metaphysical Ethics may be reasonably attributed to the failure to observe that verbal ambiguity, whereby This is good may mean either This real thing is good or The existence of this thing (whether it exists or not) would be good.

§ 71.
By exposing this ambiguity, then, we are enabled to see more clearly what must be meant by the question: Can Ethics be based on Metaphysics? and we are, therefore, more likely to find the correct answer. It is now plain that a metaphysical principle of Ethics which says This eternal reality is the Supreme Good can only mean Something like this eternal reality would be the Supreme Good. We are now to understand such principles as having the only meaning which they can consistently have, namely, as describing the kind of thing which ought to exist in the future, and which we ought to try to bring about. And, when this is clearly recognised, it seems more evident that the knowledge that such a kind of thing is also eternally real, cannot help us at all towards deciding the properly ethical question: Is the existence of that kind of thing good? If we can see that an eternal reality is good, we can see, equally easily, once the idea of such a thing has been suggested to us, that it would be good. The metaphysical construction of Reality would therefore be quite useful, for the purposes of Ethics, if it were a mere construction of an imaginary Utopia: provided the kind of thing suggested is the same, fiction is as useful as truth, for giving us matter, upon which to exercise the judgment of value. Though, therefore, we admit that Metaphysics may serve an ethical purpose, in suggesting things, which would not otherwise have occurred to us, but which, when they are suggested, we see to be good; yet, it is not as Metaphysics—as professing to tell us what is real—that it has this use. And, in fact, the pursuit of truth must limit the usefulness of Metaphysics in this respect. Wild and extravagant as are the assertions which metaphysicians have made about reality, it is not to be supposed but that they have been partially deterred from making them wilder still, by the idea that it was their business to tell nothing but the truth. But the wilder they are, and the less useful for Metaphysics, the more useful will they be for Ethics; since, in order to be sure that we have neglected nothing in the description of our ideal, we should have had before us as wide a field as possible of suggested goods. It is probable that this utility of Metaphysics, in suggesting possible ideals, may sometimes be what is meant by the assertion that Ethics should be based on Metaphysics. It is not uncommon to find that which suggests a truth confused with that on which it logically depends; and I have already pointed out that Metaphysical have, in general, this superiority over Naturalistic systems; that they conceive the Supreme Good as something differing more widely from what exists here and now. But, if it be recognised that, in this sense, Ethics should, far more emphatically, be based on fiction, metaphysicians will, I think, admit that a connection of this kind between Metaphysics and Ethics would by no means justify the importance which they attribute to the bearing of the one study on the other.

§ 72.
We may, then, attribute the obstinate prejudice that a knowledge of supersensible reality is a necessary step to a knowledge of what is good in itself, partly to a failure to perceive that the subject of the latter judgment is not anything real as such, and partly to a failure to distinguish the cause of our perception of a truth from the reason why it is true. But these two causes will carry us only a very little way in our explanation of why Metaphysics should have been supposed to have a bearing upon Ethics. The first explanation which I have given would only account for the supposition that a thing’s reality is a necessary condition for tis goodness. This supposition is, indeed, commonly made; we find it commonly presupposed that unless a thing can be shewn to be involved in the constitution of reality, it cannot be good. And it is, therefore, worthwhile to insist that this is not the case; that Metaphysics is not even necessary to furnish part of the basis of Ethics. But when metaphysicians talk of basing Ethics on Metaphysics they commonly mean much more than this. They commonly mean that Metaphysics is the sole basis of Ethics—that it furnishes not only one necessary condition but all the conditions necessary to prove that certain things are good. And this view may, at first sight, appear to be held in two different forms. It may be asserted that merely to prove a thing supersensibly real is sufficient to prove it good: that the truly real must, for that reason alone, be truly good. But more commonly it appears to be held that the real must be good because it possesses certain characters. And we may, I think, reduce the first kind of assertion to no more than this. When it is asserted that the real must be good, because it is real, it is commonly also held that this is only because, in order to be real, it must be of a certain kind. The reasoning by which it is thought that a metaphysical enquiry can give an ethical conclusion is of the following form. From a consideration of what it is to be real, we can infer that what is real must have certain supersensible properties: but to have those properties is identical with being good—it is the very meaning of the word: it follows therefore that what has these properties is good: and from a consideration of what it is to be real, we can again infer what it is that has these properties. It is plain that, if such reasoning were correct, any answer which could be given to the question What is good in itself? could be arrived at by a purely metaphysical discussion and by that alone. Just as, when Mill supposed that to be good meant to be desired, the question What is good? could be and must be answered solely by an empirical investigation of the question what was desired; so here, if to be good means to have some supersensible property, the ethical question can and must be answered by a metaphysical enquiry into the question, What has this property? What, then, remains to be done in order to destroy the plausibility of Metaphysical Ethics, is to express the chief errors which seem to have led metaphysicians to suppose that to be good means to possess some supersensible property.

§ 73.
What, then, are the chief reasons which have made it seem plausible to maintain that to be good must mean to possess some supersensible property or to be related to some supersensible reality?

We may, first of all, notice one, which seems to have had some influence in causing the view that good must be defined by some such property, although it does not suggest any particular property as the one required. This reason lies in the supposition that the proposition This is good or This would be good, if it existed must, in a certain respect, be of the same type as other propositions. The fact is that there is one type of proposition so familiar to everyone, and therefore having such a strong hold upon the imagination, that philosophers have always supposed that all other types of propositions must be reducible to it. This type is that of the objects of experience—of all those truths which occupy our minds for the immensely greater part of our waking lives: truths such as that somebody is in the room, that I am writing or eating or talking. All these truths, however much they may differ, have this in common that in them both the grammatical subject and the grammatical object stand for something which exists. Immensely the commonest type of truth, then, is one which asserts a relation between two existing things. Ethical truths are immediately felt not to conform to this type, and the naturalistic fallacy arises from the attempt to make out that, in some roundabout way, they do conform to it. It is immediately obvious that when we see a thing to be good, its goodness is not a property which we can take up in our hands, or separate from it even by the most delicate scientific instruments, and transfer to something else. It is not, in fact, like most of the predicates which we ascribe to things, a part of the thing to which we ascribe it. But philosophers suppose that the reason why we cannot take goodness up and move it about, is not that it is a different kind of object from any which can be moved about, but only that it necessarily exists together with anything with which it does exist. They explain the type of ethical truths by supposing it identical with the type of scientific laws. And it is only when they have done this that the naturalistic philosophers proper—those who are empiricists—and those whom I have called metaphysical part company. These two classes of philosophers do, indeed, differ with regard to the nature of scientific laws. The former class tend to suppose that they mean only This has accompanied, does now, and will accompany that in these particular instances: they reduce the scientific law quite simply and directly to the familiar type of proposition which I have pointed out. But this does not satisfy the metaphysicians. They see that when you say This would accompany that, if that existed, you don’t mean only that this and that have existed and will exist together so many times. But it is beyond even their powers to believe that what you do mean is merely what you say. They still think you must mean, somehow or other, that something does exist, since that is what you generally mean when you say anything. They are as unable as the empiricists to imagine that you can ever mean that 2+2=4. The empiricists say this means that so many couples of couples of things have in each case been four things; and hence that 2 and 2 would not make 4, unless precisely those things had existed. The metaphysicians feel that this is wrong; but they themselves have no better account of its meaning to give than either, with Leibniz, that God’s mind is in a certain state, or, with Kant, that your mind is in a certain state, or finally, with Mr Bradley, that something is in a certain state. Here, then, we have the root of the naturalistic fallacy. The metaphysicians have the merit of seeing that when you say This would be good, if it existed, you can’t mean merely This has existed and was desired, however many times that may have been the case. They will admit that some good things have not existed in this world, and even that some may not have been desired. But what you can mean, except that something exists, they really cannot see. Precisely the same error which leads them to suppose that there must exist a supersensible Reality, leads them to commit the naturalistic fallacy with regard to the meaning of good. Every truth, they think, must mean somehow that something exists; and since, unlike the empiricists, they recognise some truths which do not mean which do not mean that anything exists here and now, these they think must mean that something exists not here and now. On the same principle, since good is a predicate which neither does nor can exist, they are bound to suppose either that to be good means to be related to some other particular thing which can exist and does exist in reality; or else that it means merely to belong to the real world—that goodness is transcended or absorbed in reality.

§ 74.
That such a reduction of all propositions to the type of those which assert either that something exists or that something which exists has a certain attribute (which means, that both exist in a certain relation to one another), is erroneous, may easily be seen by reference to the particular class of ethical propositions. For whatever we may have proved to exist, and whatever two existents we may have proved to be necessarily connected with one another, it still remains a distinct and different question whether what thus exists is good; whether either or both of the two existents is so; and whether it is good that they should exist together. To assert the one is plainly and obviously not the same thing as to assert the other. We understand what we mean by asking: Is this, which exists, or necessarily exists, after all, good? and we perceive that we are asking a question which has not been answered. In the face of this direct perception that the two questions are distinct, no proof that they must be identical can have the slightest value. That the proposition This is good is thus distinct from every other proposition was proved in Chapter I; and I may now illustrate this fact by pointing out how it is distinguished from two particular propositions with which it has commonly been identified. That so and so ought to be done is commonly called a moral law; and this phrase naturally suggests that the proposition is in some way analogous either to a natural law, or to a law in the legal sense, or to both. All three are, in fact, really analogous in one respect, and in one respect only: that they include a proposition which is universal. A moral law asserts This is good in all cases; a natural law asserts This happens in all cases; and a law, in the legal sense, It is commanded that this be done, or left undone, in all cases. But since it is very natural to suppose that the analogy extends further, and that the assertion This is good in all cases is equivalent to the assertion This happens in all cases or to the assertion It is commanded htat this be done in all cases, it may be useful briefly to point out that they are not equivalent.

§ 75.
The fallacy of supposing moral law to be analogous to natural law in respect of asserting that some action is one which is always necessarily done is contained in one of the most famous doctrines of Kant. Kant identifies what ought to be with the law according to which a Free or Pure Will must act—with the only kind of action which is possible for it. And by this identification he does not mean merely to assert that Free Will is also under the necessity of doing what it ought; he means that what it ought to do means nothing but its own law—the law according to which it must act. It differs from the human will just in that, what we ought to do, is what it necessarily does. It is autonomous; and by this is meant (among other things) that there is no separate standard by which it can be judged: that the question Is the law by which this Will acts a good one? is, in its case, meaningless. It follows that what is necessarily willed by this Pure Will is good, not because that Will is good, nor for any other reason; but merely because it is what is necessarily willed by a Pure Will.

Kant’s assertion of the Autonomy of the Practical Reason thus has the very opposite effect to that which he desired; it makes his Ethics ultimately and hopelessly heteronomous. His Moral Law is independent of Metaphysics only in the sense that according to him we can knnow it independently; he holds that we can only infer that there is Freedom, from the fact that the Moral Law is true. And so far as he keeps strictly to this view, he does avoid the error, into which most metaphysical writers fall, of allowing his opinions as to what is real to influence his judgments of what is good. But he fails to see that on his view the Moral Law is dependent upon Freedom in a far more important sense than that in which Freedom depends on the Moral Law. He admits that Freedom is the ratio essendi of the Moral Law, whereas the latter is only the ratio cognoscendi of Freedom. And this means that, unless Reality be such as he says, no assertion that This is good can possibly be true: it can indeed have no meaning. He has, therefore, furnished his opponents with a conclusive method of attacking the validity of the Moral Law. If they can only shew by some other means (which he denies to be possible but leaves theoretically open) that the nature of Reality is not such as he says, he cannot deny that they will have proved his ethical principle to be false. If what This ought be done means This is willed by a Free Will, then, if it can be shewn that there is no Free Will which wills anything, it will follow that nothing ought to be done.

§ 76.
And Kant also commits the fallacy of supposing that This ought to be means This is commanded. He conceives the Moral Law to be an Imperative. And this is a very common mistake. This ought to be, it is assumed, must mean This is commanded; nothing, therefore, would be good unless it were commanded; and since commands in this world are liable to be erroneous, what ought to be in its ultimate sense means what is commanded by some real supersensible authority. With regard to this authority it is, then, no longer possible to ask Is it righteous? Its commands cannot fail to be right, because to be right means to be what it commands. Here, therefore, law, in the moral sense, is supposed to be analogous to law, in the legal sense, rather than, as in the last instance, to law in the natural sense. It is supposed that moral obligation is analogous to legal obligation, with this difference only that whereas the source of legal obligation is earthly, that of moral obligation is heavenly. Yet it is obvious that if by a source of obligation is meant only a power which binds you or compels you to do a thing, it is not because it does do this that you ought to obey it. It is only if it be itself so good, that it commands and enforces only what is good, that it can be a source of moral obligation. And in that case what it commands and enforces would be good, whether commanded and enforced or not. Just that which makes an obligation legal, namely the fact that it is commanded by a certain kind of authority, is entirely irrelevant to moral obligation. However an authority be defined, its commands will be morally binding only if they are—morally binding; only if they tell us what ought to be or what is a means to that which ought to be.

§ 77.
In this last error, in the supposition that when I say You ought to do this I must mean You are commanded to do this, we have one of the reasons which has led to the supposition that the particular supersensible property by reference to which good must be defined is Will. And that ethical conclusion may be obtained by enquiring into the nature of a fundamentally real Will seems to be by far the commonest assumption of Metaphysical Ethics at the present day. But this assumption seems to owe its plausibility, not so much to the supposition that ought expresses a command, as to a far more fundamental error. This error consists in supposing that to ascribe certain predicates to a thing is the same thing as to say that that thing is the object of a certain kind of psychical state. It is supposed that to say that a thing is real or true is the same thing as to say that it is known in a certain way; and that the difference between the assertion that it is good and the assertion that it is real—between an ethical, therefore, and a metaphysical proposition—consists in the fact that whereas the latter asserts its relation to Cognition the former asserts its relation to Will.

Now that this is an error has been already shewn in Chapter I. That the assertion This is good is not identical with the assertion This is willed, either by a supersensible will, or otherwise, nor with any other proposition, has been proved; nor can I add anything to that proof. But in face of this proof it may be anticipated that two lines of defence may be taken up. (1) It may be maintained that, nevertheless, they really are identical, and facts may be pointed out which seem to prove that identity. Or else (2) it may be said that an absolute identity is not maintained: that it is only meant to assert that there is some special connection between will and goodness, such as makes an enquiry into the real nature of the former an essential step in the proof of ethical conclusions. In order to meet these two possible objections, I propose first to shew what possible connections there are or may be between goodness and will; and that none of these can justify us in asserting that This is good is identical with This is willed. On the other hand it will appear that some of them may be easily confused with this assertion of identity; and that therefore the confusion is likely to have been made. This part of my argument will, therefore, already go some way towards meeting the second objection. But what must be conclusive against this is to shew that any possible connection between will and goodness except the absolute identity in question, would not be sufficient to give an enquiry into Will the smallest relevance to the proof of any ethical conclusion.

§ 78.
It has been customary, since Kant’s time, to assert that Cognition, Volition, and Feeling are three fundamentally distinct attitudes of the mind towards reality. They are three distinct ways of experiencing, and each of them informs us of a distinct aspect under which reality may be considered. The Epistemological method of approaching Metaphysics rests on the assumption that by considering what is implied in Cognition—what is its ideal—we may discover what properties the world must have, if it is to be true. And similarly it is held that by considering what is implied in the fact of Willing or Feeling—what is the ideal which they presuppose—we may discover what properties the world must have, if it is to be good or beautiful. The orthodox Idealistic Epistemologist differs from the Sensationalist or Empiricist in holding that what we directly cognise is neither all true nor yet the whole truth: in order to reject the false and to discover further truths we must, he says, not take cognition merely as it presents itself, but discover what is implied in it. And similarly the orthodox Metaphysical Ethicist differs from the mere Naturalist, in holding that not everything which we actually will is good, nor, if good, completely good: what is really good is that which is implied in the essential nature of will. Others again think that Feeling, and not Will, is the fundamental datum for Ethics. But, in either case, it is agreed that Ethics has some relation to Will or Feeling which it has not to Cognition, and which other objects of study have to Cognition. Will or Feeling, on the one hand, and Cognition, on the other, are regarded as in some sense co-ordinate sources of philosophical knowledge—the one of Practical, the other of Theoretical Philosophy.

What, that is true, can possibly be meant by this view?

§ 79.
First of all, it may be meant that, just as, by reflection on our perceptual and sensory experience, we become aware of the distinction between truth and falsehood, so it is by reflection on our experiences of feeling and willing that we become more aware of ethical distinctions. We should not know what was meant by thinking one thing better than another unless the attitude of our will or feeling towards one thing was different from its attitude towards another. All this may be admitted. But so far we have only the psychological fact that it is only because we will or feel things in a certain way, that we ever come to think them good; just as it is only because we have certain perceptual experiences, that we ever come to think things true. Here, then, is a special connection between willing and goodness; but it is only a causal connection—that willing is a necessary condition for the cognition of goodness.

But it may be said further that willing and feeling are not only the origin of cognitions of goodness; but that to will a thing, or to have a certain feeling towards a thing, is the same thing as to think it good. And it may be admitted that even this is generally true in a sense. It does seem to be true that we hardly ever think a thing good, and never very decidedly, without at the same time having a special attitude of feeling or will towards it; though it is certainly not the case that this is true universally. And the converse may possibly be true universally: it may be the case that a perception of goodness is included in the complex facts which we mean by willing by having certain kinds of feeling. Let us admit then, that to think a thing good and to will it are the same thing in this sense, that, wherever the latter occurs, the former also occurs as part of it; and even that they are generally the same thing in the converse sense, that when the former occurs it is generally part of the latter.

§ 80.
These facts may seem to give countenance to the general assertion that to think a thing good is to prefer it or approve it, in the sense in which preference and approval denote certain kinds of will or feeling. It seems to be always true that when we thus prefer or approve, there is included in that fact the fact that we think good; and it is certainly true, in an immense majority of instances, that when we think good, we also prefer or approve. It is natural enough, then, to say that to think good is to prefer. And what more natural than to add: When I say a thing is good, I mean that I prefer it? And yet this natural addition involves a gross confusion. Even if it be true that to think good is the same thing as to prefer (which, as we have seen, is never true in the sense that they are absolutely identical; and not always true in the sense that they occur together), yet it is not true that what you think, when you think a thing good, is that you prefer it. Even if your thinking the thing good is the same thing as your preference of it, yet the goodness of the thing—that of which you think—is, for that very reason, obviously not the same thing as your preference of it. Whether you have a certain thought or not is one question; and whether what you think is true is quite a different one, upon which the answer to the first has not the least bearing. The fact that you prefer a thing does not tend to shew that the thing is good; even if it does shew that you think it so.

It seems to be owing to this confusion, that the question What is good? is thought to be identical with the question What is preferred? It is said, with sufficient truth, that you would never know a thing was good unless you preferred it, just as you would never know a thing existed unless you perceived it. But it is added, and this is false, that you would never know a thing was good unless you knew that you preferred it, or that it existed unless knew that you perceived it. And it is finally added, and this is utterly false, that you cannot distinguish the fact that a thing is good from the fact that you prefer it, or the fact that it exists from the fact that you perceive it. It is often pointed out that I cannot at any given moment distinguish what is true from what I think so: and this is true. But though I cannot distinguish what is true from what I think so, I always can distinguish what I mean by saying that it is true from what I mean by saying that I think so. For I understand the meaning of the supposition that what I think true may nevertheless be false. When, therefore, I assert that it is true I mean to assert something different from the fact that I think so. What I think, namely that something is true, is always quite distinct from the fact that I think it. The assertion that it is true does not even include the assertion that I think it so; although, of course, whenever I do think a thing true, it is, as a matter of fact, also true that I do think it. This tautologous proposition that for a thing to be thought true it is necessary that it should be thought is, however, commonly identified with the proposition that for a thing to be true it is necessary that it should be thought. A very little reflection should suffice to convince anyone that this identification is erroneous; and a very little more will shew that, if so, we must mean by true something which includes no reference to thinking or to any other psychical fact. It may be difficult to discover precisely what we mean—to hold the object in question before us, so as to compare it with other objects: but that we do mean something distinct and unique can no longer be matter of doubt. That to be true means to be thought in a certain way is, therefore, certainly false. Yet this assertion plays the most essential part in Kant’s Copernican revolution of philosophy, and renders worthless the whole mass of modern literature, to which that revolution has given rise, and which is called Epistemology. Kant held that what was unified in a certain manner by the synthetic activity of thought was ipso facto true: that this was the very meaning of the word. Whereas it is plain that the only connection which can possibly hold between being true and being thought in a certain way, is that the latter should be a criterion or test of the former. In order, however, to establish that it is so, it would be necessary to establish by the methods of induction that what was true was always thought in a certain way. Modern Epistemology dispenses with this long and difficult investigation at the cost of the self-contradictory assumption that truth and the criterion of truth are one and the same thing.

§ 81.
It is, then, a very natural, though an uterrly false supposition that for a thing to be true is the same thing as for it to be perceived or thought of in a certain way. And since, for the reasons given above, the fact of preference seems roughly to stand in the same relation to thinking things good, in which the fact of perception stands to thinking that they are true or exist, it is very natural that for a thing to be good should be supposed identical with its being preferred in a certain way. But once this coordination of Volition and Cognition has been accepted, it is again very natural that every fact which seems to support the conclusion that being true is identical with being cognised should confirm the corresponding conclusion that being good is identical with being willed. It will, therefore, be in place to point out another confusion, which seems to have had great influence in causing acceptance of the view that to be true is the same thing as to be cognised.

This confusion is due to a failure to observe that when we say we have a sensation or perception or that we know a thing, we mean to assert not only that our mind is cognitive, but also that that which it cognises is true. It is not observed that the usage of these words is such that, if a thing be untrue, that fact alone is sufficient to justify us in saying that the person who says he perceives or knows it, does not perceive or know it, without our either enquiring whether, or assuming that, his state of mind differs in any respect from what it would have been had he perceived or known. By this denial we do not accuse him of an error in introspection, even if there was such an error: we do not deny that he was aware of a certain object, nor even that his state of mind was exactly such as he took it to be: we merely deny that the object, of which he was aware, had a certain property. It is, however, commonly supposed that when we assert a thing to be perceived or known, we are asserting one fact only; and since of the two facts which we really assert, the existence of a psychical state is by far the easier to distinguish, it is supposed that this is the only one which we do assert. Thus perception and sensation have come to be regarded as if they denoted certain states of mind and nothing more; a mistake which was the easier to make since the commonest state of mind, to which we give a name which does not imply that its object is true, namely imagination, may, with some plausibility, be supposed to differ from sensation and perception not only in the property possessed by its object, but also in its character as a state of mind. It has thus come to be supposed that the only difference between perception and imagination, by which they can be defined, must be a merely psychical difference: and, if this were the case, it would follow at once that to be true was identical with being cognised in a certain way; since the assertion that a thing is perceived does certainly include the assertion that it is true, and if, nevertheless, that it is perceived means only that the mind has a certain attitude towards it, then its truth must be identical with the fact that it is regarded in this way. We may, then, attribute the view that to be true means to be cognised in a certain way partly to the failure to perceive that certain words, which are commonly supposed to stand for nothing more than a certain kind of cognitive state, do, in fact, also include a reference to the truth of the object of such states.

§ 82.
I will now sum up account of the apparent connections between will and ethical propositions, which seem to support the vague conviction that This is good is somehow identical with This is willed in a certain way.

(1) It may be maintained, with sufficient show of truth, that it is only because certain things were originally willed, that we ever came to have ethical convictions at all. And it has been too commonly assumed that to shew what was the cause of a thing is the same thing as to shew the thing itself is. IT is, however, hardly necessary to point out that this is not the case.

(2) It may be further maintained, with some plausibility, that to think a thing good and to will it in a certain way are now as a matter of fact identical. We must, however, distinguish certain possible meanings of this assertion. It may be admitted that when we think a thing good, we generally have a special attitude of will or feeling towards it; and that, perhaps, when we will it in a certain way, we do always think it good. But the very fact that we can thus distinguish the question whether, though the one is always accompanied by the other, yet this other may not always be accompanied by the first, shews that the two things are not, in the strict sense, identical. The fact is that, whatever we mean by will, or by any form of the will, the fact we mean by it certainly always includes something else beside the thinking a thing good: and hence that, when willing and thinking good are asserted to be identical, the most that can be meant is that this other element in will always both accompanies and is accompanied by the thinking good; and this, as has been said, is of very doubtful truth. Even, however, if it were strictly true, the fact that the two things can be distinguished is fatal to the assumed coordination between will and cognition, in one of the senses in which that assumption is commonly made. For it is only in respect of the other element in will, that volition differs from cognition; whereas it is only in respect of the fact that volition, or some form of volition, includes a cognition of goodness, that will can have the same relation to ethical, which cognition has to metaphysical, propositions. Accordingly the fact of volition, as a whole, that is, if we include in it the element which makes it volition and distinguishes it from cognition, has not the same relation to ethical propositions which cognition has to those which are metaphysical. Volition and cognition are not coordinate ways of experiencing, since it is only in so far as volition denotes a complex fact, which includes in it the one identical simple fact, which is meant by cognition, that volition is a way of experiencing at all.

But, (3) if we allow the terms volition or will to stand for thinking good, although they certainly do not commonly stand for this, there still remains the question: What connection would this fact establish between volition and Ethics? Could the enquiry into what was willed be identical with the ethical enquiry into what was good? It is plain enough that they could not be identical; though it is also plain why they should be thought so. The question What is good? is confused with the question What is thought good? and the question What is true? with the question What is thought true? for two main reasons. (1) One of these is the general difficulty that is found in distinguishing what is cognised from the cognition of it. It is observed that I certainly cannot cognise anything that is true without cognising it. Since, therefore, whenever I know a thing that is true, the thing is certainly cognised, it is assumed that for a thing to be true at all is the same thing as for it to be cognised. And (2) it is not observed that certain words, which are supposed to denote only peculiar species of cognition, do as a matter of fact also denote that the object cognised is true. Thus if perception be taken to denote only a certain kind of mental fact, then, since the object of it is always true, it becomes easy to suppose that to be true means only to be object to a mental state of that kind. And similarly it is easy to suppose that to be truly good differs from being falsely thought so, solely in respect of the fact that to be the former is to be the object of a volition differing from that of which an apparent good is the object, in the same way in which a perception (on this supposition) differs from an illusion.

§ 83.
Being good, then, is not identical with being willed or felt in any kind of way, any more than being true is identical with being thought in any kind of way. But let us suppose this to be admitted: Is it still possible that an enquiry into the nature of will or feeling should be a necessary step to the proof of ethical conclusions? If being good and being willed are not identical, then the most that can be maintained with regard to the connection of goodness with will is that what is good is always also willed in a certain way, and that what is willed in a certain way is always also good. And it may be said that this is all that is meant by those metaphysical writers who profess to base Ethics upon the Metaphysics of Will. What would follow from this supposition?

It is plain that if what is willed in a certain way were always also good, then the fact that a thing was so willed would be a criterion of its goodness. But in order to establish that will is a criterion of goodness, we must be able to shew first and separately that in a great number of the instances in which we find a certain kind of will we also find that the objects of that will are good. We might, then, perhaps, be entitled to infer that in a few instances, where it was not obvious whether a thing was good or not but was obvious that it was willed in the way required, the thing was really good, since it had the property which in all other instances we had found to be accompanied by goodness. A reference to will might thus, just conceivably, become of use towards the end of our ethical investigations, when we had already been able to shew, independently, of a vast number of different objects that they were really good and in what degree they were so. And against even this conceivable utility it may be urged (1) That it is impossible to see why it should not be as easy (and it would certainly be the more secure way) to prove that the thing in question was good, by the same methods which we had used in proving that other things were good, as by reference to our criterion; and (2) That, if we set ourselves seriously to find out what things are good, we shall see reason to think (as will appear in Chapter VI) that they have no other property, both common and peculiar to them, beside their goodness—that, in fact, there is no criterion of goodness.

§ 84.
But to consider whether any form of will is or is not a criterion of goodness is quite unnecessary for our purpose here; since none of those writers who profess to base their Ethics on an investigation of will have ever recognised the need of proving directly and independently that all the things which are willed in a certain way are good. They make no attempt to shew that will is a criterion of goodness; and no stronger evidence could be given that they do not recognise that this, at most, is all it can be. As has been just pointed out, if we are to maintain that whatever is willed in a certain way is also good, we must in the first place be able to shew that certain things have one property goodness, and that the same things also have the other property that they are willed in a certain way. And secondly we must be able to shew this in a very large number of instances, if we are to be entitled to claim any assent for the proposition that these two properties always accompany one another: even when this was shewn it would still be doubtful whether the inference from generally to always would be valid, and almost certain that this doubtful principle would be useless. But the very question which it is the business of Ethics to answer is this question what things are good; and, so long as Hedonism retains its present popularity, it must be admitted that it is a question upon which there is scarcely any agreement and which therefore requires the most careful examination. The greatest and most difficult part of the business of Ethics would therefore require to have been already accomplished before we could be entitled to claim that anything was a criterion of goodness. If, on the other hand, to be willed in a certain way was identical with being good, then indeed we should be entitled to start our ethical investigations by enquiring what was willed in the way required. That this is the way in which metaphysical writers start their investigations seems to shew conclusively that they are influenced by the idea that goodness is identical with being willed. They do not recognise that the question What is good? is a different one from the question What is willed in a certain way? Thus we find Green explicitly stating that the common characteristic of the good is that it satisfies some desire. If we are to take this statement strictly, it obviously asserts that good things have no characteristic in common, except that they satisfy some desire—not even, therefore, that they are good. And this can only be the case, if being good is identical with satisfying desire: if good is merely another name for desire-satisfying. There could be no plainer instance of the naturalistic fallacy. And we cannot take the statement as a mere verbal slip, which does not affect the validity of Green’s argument. For he nowhere either gives or pretends to give any reason for believing anything to be good in any sense, except that it is what would satisfy a particular kind of desire—the kind of desire which he tries to shew to be that of a moral agent. An unhappy alternative is before us. Such reasoning would give valid reasons for his conclusions, if, and only if, being good and being desired in a particular way were identical: and in this case, as we have seen in Chapter I, his conclusions would not be ethical. On the other hand, if the two are not identical, his conclusions may be ethical and may even be right, but he has not given us a single reason for believing them. The thing which a scientific Ethics is required to shew, namely that certain things are really good, he has assumed to begin with, in assuming that things which are willed in a certain way are always good. We may, therefore, have as much respect for Green’s conclusions as for those of any other man who details to us his ethical convictions: but that any of his arguments are such as to give us any reason for holding that Green’s convictions are more likely to be true than those of any other man, must be clearly denied. The Prolegomena to Ethics is quite as far as Mr Spencer’s Data of Ethics, from making the smallest contribution to the solution of ethical problems.


§ 84, n. 1: Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 178 [Ed.: § 171 ¶ 1.]


§ 85.
The main object of this chapter has been to shew that Metaphysics, understood as the investigation of a supposed supersensible reality, can have no logical bearing whatever upon the answer to the fundamental ethical question What is good in itself? That this is so, follows at once from the conclusion of Chapter I, that good denotes an ultimate, unanalysable predicate; but this truth has been so systematically ignored, that it seemed worth while to discuss and distinguish, in detail, the principal relations, which do hold, or have been supposed to hold, between Metaphysics and Ethics. With this view I pointed out:—(1) That Metaphysics may have a bearing on practical Ethics—on the question What ought we to do?—so far as it may be able to tell us what the future effects of our action will be: what it can no tell us is whether those effects are good or bad in themselves. One particular type of metaphysical doctrine, which is very frequently held, undoubtedly has such a bearing on practical Ethics: for, if it is true that the sole reality is an eternal, immutable Absolute, then it follows that no actions of ours can have any real effect, and hence that no practical proposition can be true. The same conclusion follows from the ethical proposition, commonly combined with this metaphysical one—namely that this eternal Reality is also the sole good (68). (2) That metaphysical writers, as where they fail to notice the contradiction between any practical proposition and the assertion that an eternal reality is the sole good, seem frequently to confuse the proposition that one particular existing thing is good, with the proposition that the existence of that kind of thing would be good, wherever it might occur. To the proof of the former proposition Metaphysics might be relevant, by shewing that the thing existed; to the proof of the latter it is wholly irrelevant: it can only serve the psychological function of suggesting things which may be valuable—a function which would be still better performed by pure fiction (69—71).

But the most important source of the supposition that Metaphysics is relevant to Ethics, seems to be the assumption that good must denote some real property of things—an assumption which is mainly due to two erroneous doctrines, the first logical, the second epistemological. Hence (3) I discussed the logical doctrine that all properties assert a relation between existents; and pointed out that the assimilation of ethical propositions either to natural laws or to commands are instances of this logical fallacy (72—76). And finally (4) I discussed the epistemological doctrine that to be good is equivalent to being willed or felt in some particular way; a doctrine which derives support from the analogous error, which Kant regarded as the cardinal point of his system and which has received immensely wide acceptance—the erroneous view that to be true or real is equivalent to being thought in a particular way. In this discussion the main points to which I desire to direct attention are these: (a) That Volition and Feeling are not analogous to Cognition in the manner assumed; since in so far as these words denote an attitude of the mind towards an object, they are themselves merely instances of Cognition: they differ only in respect of the kind of object of which they take cognisance, and in respect of the other mental accompaniments of such cognitions: (b) That universally the object of a cognition must be distinguished from the cognition of which it is the object; and hence that in no case can the question of whether the object is true be identical with the question how it is cognised or whether it is cognised at all: it follows that even if the proposition This is good were always the object of certain kinds of will or feeling, the truth of that proposition could in no case be established by proving that it was their object; far less can that proposition itself be identical with the proposition that its subject is the object of a volition or feeling (77—84)


Principia Ethica-G. E. Moore 1903