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THE MEANING OF GOOD--A DIALOGUE
BY G. LOWES DICKINSON
Fellow of King's College, Cambridge,
and Author of a Modern Symposium
How do the waves along the level shore
Follow and fly in hurrying sheets of foam,
For ever doing what they did before,
For ever climbing what is never clomb!
Is there an end to their perpetual haste,
Their iterated round of low and high,
Or is it one monotony of waste
Under the vision of the vacant sky?
And thou, who on the ocean of thy days
Dost like a swimmer patiently contend,
And though thou steerest with a shoreward gaze
Misdoubtest of a harbour or an end,
What would the threat, or what the promise be,
Could I but read the riddle of the sea!
An attempt at Philosophic Dialogue may seem to demand a word of
explanation, if not of apology. For, it may be said, the Dialogue is
a literary form not only exceedingly difficult to handle, but, in its
application to philosophy, discredited by a long series of failures. I
am not indifferent to this warning; yet I cannot but think that I have
chosen the form best suited to my purpose. For, in the first place,
the problems I have undertaken to discuss have an interest not only
philosophic but practical; and I was ambitious to treat them in a
way which might perhaps appeal to some readers who are not professed
students of philosophy. And, secondly, my subject is one which belongs
to the sphere of right opinion and perception, rather than to that of
logic and demonstration; and seems therefore to be properly approached
in the tentative spirit favoured by the Dialogue form. On such topics
most men, I think, will feel that it is in conversation that they get
their best lights; and Dialogue is merely an attempt to reproduce in
literary form this natural genesis of opinion. Lastly, my own attitude
in approaching the issues with which I have dealt was, I found, so
little dogmatic, so sincerely speculative, that I should have felt
myself hampered by the form of a treatise. I was more desirous to
set forth various points of view than finally to repudiate or endorse
them; and though I have taken occasion to suggest certain opinions of
my own, I have endeavoured to do so in the way which should be least
imprisoning to my own thought, and least provocative of the reader's
antagonism. It has been my object, to borrow a phrase of Renan, 'de
presenter des series d'idees se developpant selon un ordre logique, et
non d'inculquer une opinion ou de precher un systeme determine.' And
I may add, with him, 'Moins que jamais je me sens l'audace de parler
doctrinalernent en pareille matiere.'
In conclusion, there is one defect which is, I think, inherent in the
Dialogue form, even if it were treated with far greater skill than any
to which I can pretend. The connection of the various phases of the
discussion can hardly be as clearly marked as it would be in a formal
treatise; and in the midst of digressions and interruptions, such
as are natural in conversation, the main thread of the reasoning may
sometimes be lost I have therefore appended a brief summary of the
argument, set forth in its logical connections.
I. After a brief introduction, the discussion starts with a
consideration of the diversity of men's ideas about Good, a diversity
which suggests _prima facie_ a scepticism as to the truth of any of
The sceptical position is stated; and, in answer, an attempt is made
to show that the position is one which is not really accepted by
thinking men. For such men, it is maintained, regulate their lives by
their ideas about Good, and thus by implication admit their belief in
This is admitted; but the further objection is made, that for the
regulation of life it is only necessary for a man to admit a Good for
himself, without admitting also a General Good or Good of all. It is
suggested, in reply, that the conduct of thinking men commonly does
imply a belief in a General Good.
Against this it is urged that the belief implied is not in a Good
of all, but merely in the mutual compatibility of the Goods of
individuals; so that each whilst pursuing exclusively his own Good,
may also believe that he is contributing to that of others. In reply,
it is suggested (1) that such a belief is not borne out by fact;
(2) that the belief does itself admit a Good common to all, namely,
society and its institutions.
In conclusion, it is urged that to disbelieve in a General Good is to
empty life of what constitutes, for most thinking men, its main value.
II. The position has now been taken up (1) that men who reflect do,
whatever may be their theoretical opinion, imply, in their actual
conduct, a belief in their ideas about Good, (2) but that there seems
to be no certainty that such ideas are true. This latter proposition
is distasteful to some of the party, who endeavour to maintain that
there really is no uncertainty as to what is good.
Thus it is argued:
(1) That the criterion of Good is a simple infallible instinct. To
which it is replied that there appear to be many such 'instincts'
conflicting among themselves.
(2) That the criterion of Good is the course of Nature; Good being
defined as the end to which Nature is tending. To which it is replied
that such a judgment is as _a priori_ and unbased as any other, and as
much open to dispute.
It is then urged that if we reject the proposed criterion, we can have
no scientific basis for Ethics; which leads to a brief discussion of
the nature of Science, and the applicability of its methods to Ethics.
(3) That the criterion of Good is current convention. To which it
is replied, that conventions are always changing, and that the moral
reformer is precisely the man who disputes those which are current.
Especially, it is urged that our own conventions are, in fact,
vigorously challenged, e.g. by Nietzsche.
(4) That the criterion of Good is Pleasure, or the "greatest happiness
of the greatest number." To which it is replied:
(a) That this view is not, as is commonly urged, in accordance with
(b) That either Pleasure must be taken in the simplest and narrowest
sense; in which case it is palpably inadequate as a criterion of
Good; or its meaning must be so widely extended that the term Pleasure
becomes as indefinite as the term Good.
(c) That if the criterion of Pleasure were to be fairly applied, it
would lead to results that would shock those who profess to adopt it.
III. These methods of determining Good having been set aside, it is
suggested that it is only by 'interrogating experience' that we can
discover, tentatively, what things are good.
To this it is objected, that perhaps all our ideas derived from
experience are false, and that the only method of determining Good
would be metaphysical, and _a priori_. In reply, the bare possibility
of such a method is admitted; but it is urged that no one really
believes that all our opinions derived from experience are false,
and that such a belief, if held, would deprive life of all ethical
significance and worth.
Finally, it is suggested that the position in which we do actually
find ourselves, is that of men who have a real, though imperfect
perception of a real Good, and who are endeavouring, by practice, to
perfect that perception. In this respect an analogy is drawn between
our perception of Good and our perception of Beauty.
It is further suggested that the end of life is not merely a knowledge
but an experience of Good; this end being conceived as one to be
realised in Time.
IV. On this, the point is raised, whether it is not necessary to
conceive Good as eternally existing, rather than as something to be
brought into existence in the course of Time? On this view, Evil must
be conceived as mere 'appearance.'
In reply, it is suggested:
(1) That it is impossible to reconcile the conception of eternal Good
with the obvious fact of temporal Evil.
(2) That such a view reduces to an absurdity all action directed to
ends in Time. And yet it seems that such action not only is but ought
to be pursued, as appears to be admitted even by those who hold that
Good exists eternally, since they make it an end of action that they
should come to see that everything is good.
(3) That this latter conception of the end of action--namely, that we
should bring ourselves to see that what appears to be Evil is really
Good--is too flagrantly opposed to common sense to be seriously
To sum up:
In this Book the following positions have been discussed and rejected:
(1) That our ideas about Good have no relation to any real fact.
(2) That we have easy and simple criteria of Good--such as (a)
an infallible instinct, (b) the course of Nature, (c) current
conventions, (d) pleasure.
(3) That all Reality is good, and all Evil is mere 'appearance.'
And it has been suggested that our experience is, or may be made, a
progressive discovery of Good.
In the following Book the question of the content of Good is
* * * * *
This Book comprises an attempt to examine some kinds of Good, to point
out their defects and limitations, and to suggest the character of
a Good which we might hold to be perfect--here referred to as '_The_
The attitude adopted is tentative, for it is based on the position, at
which we are supposed to have arrived, that the experience of any one
person, or set of persons, about Good is limited and imperfect, and
that therefore in any attempt to describe what it is that we hold
to be good, to compare Goods among one another, and to suggest
an absolute Good, we can only hope, at best, to arrive at some
approximation to truth.
I. This attitude is explained at the outset, and certain preliminary
points are then discussed. These are:
(1) Can any Good be an end for us unless it is conceived to be an
object of consciousness? The negative answer is suggested.
(2) In pursuing Good, for whom do we pursue it? It is suggested that
the Good we pursue is
(a) That of future generations. Some difficulties in this view are
brought out; and it is hinted that what we really pursue is the Good
of 'the Whole,' though it is not easy to see what we mean by that.
(b) That of 'the species.' But this view too is seen to be involved
II. The difficulty is left unsolved, and the conversation passes on
to an examination of some of our activities from the point of view
of Good. In this examination a double object is kept in view: (1) to
bring out the characteristics and defects of each kind of Good; (2) to
suggest a Good which might be conceived to be free from defects, such
a Good being referred to as '_The_ Good.'
(1) It is first suggested that _all_ activities are good, if pursued
in the proper order and proportion; and that what seems bad in each,
viewed in isolation, is seen to be good in a general survey of them
all. This view, it is argued, is too extravagant to be tenable.
(2) It is suggested that Good consists in ethical activity. To this it
is objected that ethical actions are always means to an end, and that
it is this end that must be conceived to be really good.
(3) The activity of the senses in their direct contact with physical
objects is discussed. This is admitted to be a kind of Good; but
such Good, it is maintained, is defective, not only because it is
precarious, but because it depends upon objects of which it is not the
essence to produce that Good, but which, on the contrary, just as much
and as often produce Evil.
(4) This leads to a discussion of Art. In Art, it seems, we are
brought into relation with objects of which it may be said:
(a) That they have, by their essence, that Good which is called
(b) That, in a certain sense, they may be said to be eternal.
(c) That, though complex, they are such that their parts are
necessarily connected, in the sense that each is essential to the
On the other hand, the Good of Art suffers from the defects:
(a) That outside and independent of Art there is the 'real world,'
so that this Good is only a partial one.
(b) That Art is a creation of man, whereas we seem to demand, for
a thing that shall be perfectly good, that it shall be so of its own
nature, without our intervention.
(5) It is suggested that perhaps we may find the Good we seek in
knowledge. This raises the difficulty that various views are held as
to the nature of knowledge. Of these, two are discussed:
(a) the view that knowledge is 'the description and summing up in
brief formulae, of the routine of our perceptions.' It is questioned
whether there is really much Good in such an activity. And it is
argued that, whatever Good it may have, it cannot be _the_ Good,
seeing that knowledge may be, and frequently is, knowledge of Bad.
(b) the view that knowledge consists in the perception of 'necessary
connections,' Viewed from the standpoint of Good, this seems to be
open to the same objection as (a). But, further, it is argued that
the perpetual contemplation of necessary relations among ideas does
not satisfy our conception of the Good; but that we require an
element analogous somehow to that of sense, though not, like sense,
unintelligible and obscure.
(6) Finally, it is suggested that in our relation to other persons,
where the relation takes the form of love, we may perhaps find
something that comes nearer than any other of our experiences to being
absolutely good. For in that relation, it is urged, we are in contact
(a) with objects, not 'mere ideas.'
(b) with objects that are good in themselves and
(c) intelligible and
(d) harmonious to our own nature.
It is objected that love, so conceived, is
(a) rarely, perhaps never, experienced.
(b) in any case, is neither eternal nor universal.
This is admitted; but it is maintained that the best love we know
comes nearer than anything else to what we might conceive to be
III. The question is now raised: if 'the Good' be so conceived, is it
not clearly unattainable? The answer to this question seems to depend
on whether or not we believe in personal immortality. The following
points are therefore discussed:
(a) Whether personal immortality is conceivable?
(b) Whether a belief in it is essential to a reasonable pursuit of
On these points no dogmatic solution is offered; and the Dialogue
closes with the description of a dream.
Every summer, for several years past, it has been my custom to arrange
in some pleasant place, either in England or on the continent, a
gathering of old college friends. In this way I have been enabled
not only to maintain some happy intimacies, but (what to a man of
my occupation is not unimportant) to refresh and extend, by an
interchange of ideas with men of various callings, an experience of
life which might be otherwise unduly monotonous and confined. Last
year, in particular, our meeting was rendered to me especially
agreeable by the presence of a very dear friend, Philip Audubon, whom,
since his business lay in the East, I had not had an opportunity of
seeing for many years. I mention him particularly, because, although,
as will be seen, he did not take much part in the discussion I am
about to describe, he was, in a sense, the originator of it. For, in
the first place, it was he who had invited us to the place in which we
were staying,--an upland valley in Switzerland, where he had taken a
house; and, further, it was through my renewed intercourse with him
that I was led into the train of thought which issued in the following
conversation. His life in the East, a life laborious and monotonous
in the extreme, had confirmed in him a melancholy to which he was
constitutionally inclined, and which appeared to be rather heightened
than diminished by exceptional success in a difficult career. I
hesitate to describe his attitude as pessimistic, for the word has
associations with the schools from which he was singularly free. His
melancholy was not the artificial product of a philosophic system; it
was temperamental rather than intellectual, and might be described,
perhaps, as an intuition rather than a judgment of the worthlessness
and irrationality of the world. Such a position is not readily shaken
by argument, nor did I make any direct attempt to assail it; but it
could not fail to impress itself strongly upon my mind, and to keep
my thoughts constantly employed upon that old problem of the worth
of things, in which, indeed, for other reasons, I was already
A further impulse in the same direction was given by the arrival of
another old friend, Arthur Ellis. He and I had been drawn together
at college by a common interest in philosophy; but in later years our
paths had diverged widely. Fortune and inclination had led him into
an active career, and for some years he had been travelling abroad
as correspondent to one of the daily papers. I felt, therefore, some
curiosity to renew my acquaintance with him, and to ascertain how far
his views had been modified by his experience of the world.
The morning after his arrival he joined Audubon and myself in a kind
of loggia at the back of the house, which was our common place of
rendezvous. We exchanged the usual greetings, and for some minutes
nothing more was said, so pleasant was it to sit silent in the shade
listening to the swish of scythes (they were cutting the grass in
the meadow opposite) and to the bubbling of a little fountain in the
garden on our right, while the sun grew hotter every minute on the
fir-covered slopes beyond. I wanted to talk, and yet I was unwilling
to begin; but presently Ellis turned to me and said: "Well, my dear
philosopher, and how goes the world with you? What have you been doing
in all these years since we met?"
"Oh," I replied, "nothing worth talking about."
"What have you been thinking then?"
"Just now I have been thinking how well you look. Knocking about the
world seems to suit you."
"I think it does. And yet at this moment, whether it be the quiet of
the place, or whether it be the sight of your philosophic countenance,
I feel a kind of yearning for the contemplative life. I believe if
I stayed here long you would lure me back to philosophy; and yet I
thought I had finally escaped when I broke away from you before."
"It is not so easy," I said, "to escape from that net, once one is
caught. But it was not I who spread the snare; I was only trying to
help you out, or, at least, to get out myself."
"And have you found a way?"
"No, I cannot say that I have. That's why I want to talk to you and
hear how you have fared."
"I? Oh, I have given the whole subject up."
"You can hardly give up the subject till you give up life. You may
have given up reading books about it; and, for that matter, so have I.
But that is only because I want to grapple with it more closely."
"What do you do, then, if you do not read books?"
"I talk to as many people as I can, and especially to those who have
had no special education in philosophy; and try to find out to what
conclusions they have been led by their own direct experience."
"Conclusions about what?"
"About many things. But in particular about the point we used to be
fondest of discussing in the days before you had, as you say, given
up the subject--I mean the whole question of the values we attach, or
ought to attach, to things."
"Oh!" he said, "well, as to all that, my opinion is the same as of
old. 'There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,' So I used
to say at college and so I say now."
"I remember," I replied, "that that is what you always used to say;
but I thought I had refuted you over and over again."
"So you may have done, as far as logic can refute; but every bit of
experience which I have had since last we met has confirmed me in my
"That," I said, "is very interesting, and is just what I want to hear
about. What is it that experience has done for you? For, as you
know, I have so little of my own, I try to get all I can out of other
"Well," he said, "the effect of mine has been to bring home to me,
in a way I could never realize before, the extraordinary diversity of
"That, you find, is the effect of travel?"
"I think so. Travelling really does open the eyes. For instance, until
I went to the East I never really felt the antagonism between the
Oriental view of life and our own. Now, it seems to me clear that
either they are mad or we are; and upon my word, I don't know which.
Of course, when one is here, one supposes it is they. But when one
gets among them and really talks to them, when one realizes how
profound and intelligent is their contempt for our civilization,
how worthless they hold our aims and activities, how illusory our
progress, how futile our intelligence, one begins to wonder whether,
after all, it is not merely by an effect of habit that one judges them
to be wrong and ourselves right, and whether there is anything at
all except blind prejudice in any opinions and ideas about Right and
"In fact," interposed Audubon, "you agree, like me, with Sir Richard
"'There is no good, there is no bad, these be the whims of mortal will;
What works me weal that call I good, what harms and hurts I hold as ill.
They change with space, they shift with race, and in the veriest span of
Each vice has worn a virtue's crown, all good been banned as sin or
"Yes," he assented, "and that is what is brought home to one by
travel. Though really, if one had penetration enough, it would not be
necessary to travel to make the discovery. A single country, a single
city, almost a single village, would illustrate, to one who can look
below the surface, the same truth. Under the professed uniformity of
beliefs, even here in England, what discrepancies and incongruities
are concealed! Every type, every individual almost, is distinguished
from every other in precisely this point of the judgments he makes
about Good. What does the soldier and adventurer think of the life of
a studious recluse? or the city man of that of the artist? and vice
versa? Behind the mask of good manners we all of us go about judging
and condemning one another root and branch. We are in no real
agreement as to the worth either of men or things. It is an illusion
of the 'canting moralist' (to use Stevenson's phrase) that there is
any fixed and final standard of Good. Good is just what any one thinks
it to be; and one man has as much right to his opinion as another."
"But," I objected, "it surely does not follow that because there are
different opinions about Good, they are all equally valuable."
"No. I should infer rather that they are all equally worthless."
"That does not seem to me legitimate either; and I venture to doubt
whether you really believe it yourself."
"Well, at any rate I am inclined to think I do."
"In a sense perhaps you do; but not in the sense which seems to me
most important. I mean that when it comes to the point, you act, and
are practically bound to act, upon your opinion about what is good, as
though you did believe it to be true."
"How do you mean 'practically bound?'"
"I mean that it is only by so acting that you are able to introduce
any order or system into your life, or in fact to give it to yourself
any meaning at all. Without the belief that what you hold to be good
really somehow is so, your life, I think, would resolve itself into
"I don't see that"
"Well, I may be wrong, but my notion is that what systematizes a life
is choice; and choice, I believe, means choice of what we hold to be
"Surely not! Surely we may choose what we hold to be bad."
"I doubt it"
"But how then do you account for what you call bad men?"
"I should say they are men who choose what I think bad but they think
"But are there not men who deliberately choose what they think bad,
like Milton's Satan--'Evil be thou my Good'?"
"Yes, but by the very terms of the expression he was choosing what he
thought good; only he thought that evil was good."
"But that is a contradiction."
"Yes, it is the contradiction in which he was involved, and in which I
believe everyone is involved who chooses, as you say, the Bad. To them
it is not only bad, it is somehow also good."
"Does that apply to Nero, for example?"
"Yes, I think it very well might; the things which he chose, power and
wealth and the pleasures of the senses, he chose because he thought
them good; if his choice also involved what he thought bad, such as
murder and rapine and the like (if he did think these bad, which I
doubt), then there was a contradiction not so much in his choice as in
its consequences. But even if I were to admit that he and others have
chosen and do choose what they believe to be bad, it would not affect
the point I want to make. For to choose Bad must be, in your view, as
absurd as to choose Good; since, I suppose, you do not believe, that
our opinions about the one have any more validity than our opinions
about the other. So that if we are to abandon Good as a principle of
choice, it is idle to say we may fall back upon Bad."
"No, I don't say that we may; nor do I see that we must We do not
need either the one or the other. You must have noticed--I am sure I
have--that men do not in practice choose with any direct reference to
Good or Bad; they choose what they think will bring them pleasure, or
fame, or power, or, it may be, barely a livelihood."
"But believing, surely, that these things are good?"
"Not necessarily; not thinking at all about it, perhaps."
"Perhaps not thinking about it as we are now; but still, so far
believing that what they have chosen Is good, that if you were to go
to them and suggest that, after all, it is bad they would be seriously
angry and distressed."
"But, probably," interposed Audubon, "like me, they could not help
themselves. We are none of us free, in the way you seem to imagine. We
have to choose the best we can, and often it is bad enough."
"No doubt," I replied, "but still, as you say yourself, what we choose
is the best we can, that is, the most good we can. The criterion is
Good, only it is very little of it that we are able to realize."
"No," objected Ellis, "I am not prepared to admit that the criterion
is Good. You will find that men will frankly confess that other
pursuits or occupations are, in their opinion, better than those
they have chosen, and that these better things were and are open to
themselves, and yet they continue to devote themselves to the worse,
knowing it all the time to be the worse."
"But in most cases," I replied, "these better things, surely, are not
really 'open' to them, except so far as external circumstances are
concerned. They are hampered in their choice by passions and desires,
by that part of them which does not choose, but is passively carried
away by alien attractions; and the course they actually adopt is the
best they can choose, though they see a better which they would choose
if they could. The choice is always of Good, but it may be diverted by
passion to less Good."
"I don't know," he said, "that that is a fair account of the matter."
"Nor do I. It is so hard to analyse what goes on in one's own
consciousness, much more what goes on in other people's. Still, that
is the kind of way I should describe my own experience, and I should
expect that most people who reflect would agree with me. They would
say, I think, that they always choose the best they can, though
regretting that they cannot choose better than they do; and it would
seem to them, I think, absurd to suggest that they choose Bad, or
choose without any reference either to Good or Bad."
"Well," he said, "granting, for the moment, that you are right--what
"Why, then," I said, "it follows that we are, as I said, 'practically
bound' to accept as valid, for the moment at least, our opinions about
what is good; for otherwise we should have no principle to choose by,
if it be true that the principle of choice is Good."
"Very well," he said, "then we should have to do without choosing!"
"But could we?"
"I don't see why not; many people do."
"But what sort of people? I mean what sort of life would it be?"
Ellis was preparing to answer when we were interrupted by a voice from
behind. The place in which we were sitting opened at the back into one
of those large lofty barns which commonly form part of a Swiss house;
and as the floor of this room was covered with straw, it was possible
to approach that way without making much noise. For this reason, two
others of our party had been able to join us without our observing it.
Their names were Parry and Leslie; the former a man of thirty, just
getting into practice at the Bar, the latter still almost a boy in
years, though a very precocious one, whom I had brought with me,
ostensibly as a pupil, but really as a companion. He was an eager
student of philosophy, and had something of that contempt of youth for
any one older than twenty-five, which I can never find it in my heart
to resent, though have long passed the age which qualifies me to
become the object of it. He it was who was speaking, in a passionate
way he had, when anything like a philosophic discussion was
"Why," he was saying, in answer to my last remark, "without choice one
would be a mere slave of passion, a creature of every random mood and
impulse, a beast, a thing, not a man at all!"
Ellis looked round rather amused.
"Well," he said, "you fire-eater, and why not? I don't know that
impulse is such a bad thing. A good impulse is better than a bad
calculation any day!"
"Yes, but you deny the validity of the distinction between Good and
Bad, so it's absurd for you to talk about a good impulse."
"What _is_ your position, Ellis?" asked Parry. "I've been trying in
vain to make head or tail of it"
"Why should I take a position at all?" rejoined Ellis "I protest
against this bullying."
"But you _must_ take a position," cried Leslie, "if we are to
"I don't see why; you might take one instead."
"Yes, but you began."
"Well," he conceded, "anything to oblige you. My position, then, to
go back again to the beginning, is this. Seeing that there are so many
different opinions about what things are good, and that no criterion
has been discovered for testing these opinions----"
"My dear Ellis," interrupted Parry, "I protest against all that from
the very beginning. For all practical purposes there is a substantial
agreement about what is good."
"My dear Parry," retorted Ellis, "if I am to state a position, let
me state it without interruption. Considering, as I was saying, that
there are so many different opinions about what things are good, and
that no criterion has been discovered for testing them, I hold that we
have no reason to attach any validity to these opinions, or to suppose
that it is possible to have any true opinions on the subject at all."
"And what do you say to that?" asked Parry, turning to me.
"I said, or rather I suggested, for the whole matter is very difficult
to me, that in spite of the divergency of opinions on the point, and
the difficulty of bringing them into harmony, we are nevertheless
practically bound, whether we can justify it to our reason or not,
to believe that our own opinions about what is good have somehow some
"But how 'practically bound'?" asked Leslie.
"Why, as I was trying to get Ellis to admit when you interrupted--and
your interruption really completed my argument--I imagine it to be
impossible for us not to make choices; and in making choices, as I
think, we use our ideas about Good as a principle of choice."
"But you must remember," said Ellis, "that I have never admitted the
truth of that last statement."
"But," I said, "if you do not admit it generally--and generally, I
confess, I do not see how it could be proved or disproved, except by
an appeal to every individual's experience--do you not admit it in
your own case? Do you not find that, in choosing, you follow your idea
of what is good, so far as you can under the limitations of your own
passions and of external circumstances?"
"Well," he replied, "I wish to be candid, and I am ready to admit that
"And that you cannot conceive yourself as choosing otherwise? I mean
that if you had to abandon as a principle of choice your opinion about
Good, you would have nothing else to fall back upon?"
"No; I think in that case I should simply cease to choose."
"And can you conceive yourself doing that? Can you conceive yourself
living, as perhaps many men do, at random and haphazard, from moment
to moment, following blindly any impulse that may happen to turn
up, without any principle by which you might subordinate one to the
"No," he said, "I don't think I can."
"That, then," I said, "is what I meant, when I suggested that you, at
any rate, and I, and other people like us, are practically bound to
believe that our opinions about what is good have some validity, even
though we cannot say what or how much."
"You say, then, that we have to accept in practice what we deny in
"Yes, if you like. I say, at least, that the consequence of the
attempt to bring our theoretical denial to bear upon our practice
would be to reduce our life to a moral chaos, by denying the only
principle of choice which we find ourselves actually able to accept.
In your case and mine, as it seems, it is our opinion about Good that
engenders order among our passions and desires; and without it we
should sink back to be mere creatures of blind impulse, such as
perhaps in fact, many men really are."
"What!" cried Audubon, interrupting in a tone of half indignant
protest, "do you mean to say that it is some idea about Good that
brings order into a man's life? All I can say is that, for my part,
I never once think, from one year's end to another, of anything so
abstract and remote. I simply go on, day after day, plodding the
appointed round, without reflexion, without reason, simply because I
have to. There's order in my life, heaven knows! but it has nothing to
do with ideas about Good. And altogether," he ejaculated, in a kind of
passion, "it's a preposterous thing to tell me that I believe in
Good, merely because I lead a life like a mill-horse! That would be an
admirable reason for believing in Bad--but Good!"
He lapsed again into silence; and I was half unwilling to press him
further, knowing that he felt our dialectics to be a kind of insult to
his concrete woes. However, it seemed to be necessary for the sake of
the argument to give some answer, so I began:--
"But if you don't like the life of a mill-horse, why do you lead it?"
"Why? because I have to!" he replied; "you don't suppose I would do it
if I could help it?"
"No," I said, "but why can't you help it?"
"Because," he said, "I have to earn my living."
"Then is it a good thing to earn your living?"
"No, but it's a necessary thing."
"Because one must live."
"Then it is a good thing to live?"
"No, it's a very bad one."
"Why do you live, then?"
"Because I can't help it."
"But it is always possible to stop living."
"No, it isn't"
"But why not?"
"Because there are other people dependent on me, and I don't choose to
be such a mean skunk as to run away myself and leave other people here
to suffer. Besides, it's a sort of point of honour. As I'm here, I'm
going to play the game. All I say is that the game is not worth the
playing; and you will never persuade me into the belief that it Is."
"But, my dear Philip," I said, "there is no need for me to persuade
you, for it is clear that you are persuaded already. You believe, as
you have really admitted in principle, that it is good to live rather
than to die; and to live, moreover, a monotonous, laborious life,
which you say you detest Take away that belief, and your whole being
is transformed. Either you change your manner of life, abandon the
routine which you hate, break up the order imposed (as I said at
first) by your idea about Good, and give yourself up to the chaos of
chance desires; or you depart from life altogether, on the hypothesis
that that is the good thing to do. But in any case the truth appears
to remain that somehow or other you do believe in Good; and that it is
this belief which determines the whole course of your life."
"Well," he said, "it's no use arguing the point, but I am
unconvinced." And he sank back to his customary silence. I thought
it useless to pursue the subject with him; but Ellis took up the
"I agree with Audubon," he said. "For even if I admitted your general
contention, I should still maintain that it is not by virtue of any
conscious idea of Good that we introduce order into our lives. We
simply find ourselves, as a matter of fact, by nature and character,
preferring one object to another, suppressing or developing this or
that tendency. Our choices are not determined by our abstract notion
of Good; on the contrary, our notion of Good is deduced from our
"You mean, I suppose, that we collect from our particular choices our
general idea of the kind of things which we consider good. That may
be. But the point I insist upon is that we do attach validity to
these choices; they are, to us, our choices of our Good, those that we
approve as distinguished from those that we do not. And my contention
is that, in spite of all diversity of opinions as to what really are
the good things to choose, we are bound to attach, each of us, some
validity to our own, under penalty of reducing our life to a moral
"But what do you mean by 'validity'?" asked Leslie. "Do you mean that
we must believe that our opinions are right?"
"Yes," I said, "or, at least, if not that they are right, that they
are the rightest we can attain to for the time being, and until we see
something righter. But above all, that opinions on this subject really
are either right or wrong, or more right and less right; and that of
this rightness or wrongness we really have some kind of perception,
however difficult it may be to give an account of it, and that in
accordance with such perception we may come to change our opinions or
those of other people, by the methods of discussion and persuasion and
the like. And all this, as I understand, is what Ellis was denying."
"Certainly," said Ellis, "I was; and I still do not see that you have
"No," I said, "I have not even tried to. I have only tried to show
that in spite of your denial you really do believe it, because a
belief in it is implied in all your practical activity. And that, I
thought, you did admit yourself."
"But even so," he replied, "it remains to be considered whether my
theory is not more reasonable than my practice."
"Perhaps," I replied; "but that, I admit, is not the question that
really interests me. What I want to get at is the belief which
underlies the whole life of people like ourselves, and of which, it
seems, we cannot practically divest ourselves. And such a belief, I
think, is this which we have been discussing as to the validity of our
opinions about Good."
"I see," he said; "in fact you are concerning yourself not with
philosophy but with psychology."
"If you like; it matters little what you call it. Only, whatever it
be, you will do me a service if for the moment you will place yourself
at my standpoint, and see with me how things look from there."
"Very well," he said, "I have no objection, and so far, on the whole,
I do agree with you; though I am bound to point out that you might
easily find an opponent less complaisant. Your argument is very much
one _ad hominem_."
"It is," I said, "and that, I confess, is the only kind of argument in
which I much believe in these matters. I am content, for the present,
if you and the others here go along with me."
"I do," said Parry, "but you seem to me to be only stating, in an
unnecessarily elaborate way, what after all is a mere matter of common
"Perhaps it is," I replied, "though I have always thought myself
rather deficient in that kind of sense. But what does Leslie say?"
"Oh," he said, "I can't think how you can be content with anything so
lame and impotent! Some method there must be, absolute and _a priori_,
by which we may prove for certain that Good is, and discover, as well,
what things are good."
"Well," I said, "if there be such a method, you, if anyone, should
find it; and I wish you from my heart good luck in the quest. It is
only in default of anything better that I fall back on this--I dare
not call it method; this appeal to opinion and belief."
"And even so," said Ellis, "it is little enough that you have shown,
or rather, that I have chosen to admit. For even if it were granted
that individuals, in order to choose, must believe in Good, it doesn't
follow that they believe in anything except each a Good for himself.
So that, even on your own hypothesis, all we could say would be that
there are a number of different and perhaps incompatible Goods, each
good for some particular individual, but none necessarily good for
all. I, at least, admit no more than that."
"How do you mean?" I asked, "for I am getting lost again."
"I mean," he replied, "something that I should have thought was
familiar enough. Granted that there really is a Good which each
individual ought to choose, and does choose, if you like, as far as
he can see it; or granted, at least, that he is bound to believe this,
under penalty of reducing his life to moral chaos; still, I see no
reason to suppose that the thing which one individual ought to choose
is identical, or even compatible, with that which another ought to
choose. There may be a whole series of distinct and mutually exclusive
moral worlds. In other words, even though I may admit a Good for each,
I am not prepared to admit a Good for all."
"But then," I objected, "each of these Goods will also be a not-Good;
and that seems to be a contradiction."
"Not at all," he replied, "for each of them only professes to be Good
for me, and that is quite compatible with being Bad for another."
"But," cried Leslie, trembling with excitement, "your whole conception
is absurd. Good is simply Good; it is not Good for anybody or
anything; it is Good in its own nature, one, simple, immutable
"It may be," replied Ellis, "but I hope you will not actually tear me
to pieces if I humbly confess that I cannot see it. I see no reason to
admit any such Good; it even has no meaning to me."
"Well, anyhow, nothing else can have any meaning!"
"But, to me, something else has a meaning."
"Why, what I have been trying, apparently without success, to
"But don't you see that each of those things you call Goods, oughtn't
to be called Good at all, but each of them by some other particular
name of its own?"
"Oh, I don't want to quarrel about names; but I call each of them
Good because from one point of view--that of some particular
individual--each of them is something that ought to be. I, at any
rate, admit no more than that. For each individual there is something
that ought to be; but this, which ought to be for him, is very likely
something that ought not to be for somebody else."
On this Leslie threw himself back with a gesture of disgust and
despair; and I took the opportunity of intervening.
"Let us have some concrete instances," I said, "of these incompatible
"By all means," he replied, "nothing can be simpler. It is good, say,
for Nero, to preserve supreme power; but it is bad for the people who
come in his way. It is good for an American millionaire to make and
increase his fortune; but it is bad for the people he ruins in the
process. And so on, _ad infinitum_; one has only to look at the
world to see that the Goods of individuals are not only diverse but
incompatible one with another."
"Of course," I said, "it is true that people do hold things to be good
which are in this way mutually incompatible. But does not the fact
of this incompatibility make one suspect that perhaps the things in
question are not really good?"
"It may, in some cases, but I see no ground for the suspicion. It
may very well be that what is good for me is in the nature of things
incompatible with what is good for you."
"I don't say it may not be so; but does one believe it to be so?
Doesn't one believe that what is really good for one must somehow be
compatible with what is really good for others?"
"Some people may believe it, but many don't; and it can never be
"No; and so I am driven back upon my argument _ad hominem_. Do not
you, as a matter of fact, believe it?"
"No, I don't know that I do."
"Do you believe then that there is nothing which is good for people in
"I don't see what is to prevent my believing it."
"But, at any rate you do not act as if you believed it."
"In what way do I not?"
"Why, for instance, you said last night that you intended to enter
"And in a few weeks you will be making speeches all over the country
in favour of--well, I don't quite know what--shall we say in favour of
"Say so, by all means, if you like."
"And this war, I presume, you believe to be a good thing?"
"Good, that is, not merely for yourself but for the world at large? or
at least for the English or the Boers, or one or other of them? Do you
"Oh," he said, "I am nothing if not frank! At present, we will admit,
I think the war a good thing (whatever that may mean); but what of
that? Very probably I am wrong."
"Very probably you are; but that is not the point. The main thing is,
that you admit that it is possible to be wrong or right at all; that
there is something to be wrong or right about."
"But I don't know that I do admit it, or, at any rate, that I shall
always admit it. Probably, after changing my opinions again and again,
I shall come to the conclusion that none of them are worth anything at
all; that, in fact, there's nothing to have an opinion about; and then
I shall retire from politics altogether; and then--then how will you
get hold of me?"
"Oh," I replied, "easily enough! For you will still continue, I
suppose, to do some kind of work, and work which will necessarily
affect innumerable people besides yourself; and you will believe, I
presume, that somehow or other the work you do is contributing to some
"'You presume'! you do indeed presume! Suppose I believe nothing of
the kind? Suppose I deny altogether a general Good?"
"We will suppose it, if you like," I said. "And now let us go on to
examine the consequences of the supposition."
"By all means!" he said, "proceed!"
"Well," I began, "since you are still living in society, (for that, I
suppose, you allow me to assume,) you are, by the nature of the case,
interchanging with others innumerable offices. At the same time, on
the supposition we are adopting, that you deny a general Good, your
only object in this interchange will be your own Good, (in which you
admit that you do believe.) If, for example, you are a doctor,
your aim, at the highest, is to develop yourself, to increase your
knowledge, your skill, your self-control; at the lowest, it is to
accumulate a fortune; but in neither case can your purpose be to
alleviate or cure disease, nor to contribute to the advance of
science; for that would be to suppose that these ends, although they
purport to be general, nevertheless are somehow good, which is the
hypothesis we were excluding. Similarly, if you are a lawyer, you will
not set your heart on doing justice, or perfecting the law; such ends
as these for you are mere illusions; for even if justice exist at all,
it certainly is not a Good, for if it were, it would be a Good for
all, and, as we agree, there is no such thing. Men like Bentham,
therefore, to you will be mere visionaries, and the legal system as a
whole will have no sense or purport, except so far as it contributes
to sharpen your wits and fill your pocket And so, in general, with all
professions and occupations; whichever you may adopt, you will treat
it merely as a means to your own Good; and since you have no Good
which is also common to other men, you will use these others without
scruple to further what you conceive to be your own advantage, without
necessarily paying any regard to what they may conceive to be theirs."
"Well," he said, "and why not?"
"I don't ask 'why not'?" I replied, "I ask merely whether it would be
so? whether you do, as a matter of fact, conceive it possible that you
should ever adopt such an attitude?"
"Well, no," he admitted, "I don't think it is; but that is an
idiosyncrasy of mine; and I have no doubt there are plenty of other
men who are precisely in the position you describe. Take, for example,
a man like the late Jay Gould. Do you suppose that he, in his business
operations, ever had any regard for anything except his own personal
advantage? Do you suppose he cared how many people he ruined? Do you
suppose he cared even whether he ruined his country, except so far as
such ruin might interfere with his own profit? Or look again at the
famous Mr. Leiter of Chicago! What do you suppose it mattered to
him that he might be starving half the world, and imperilling the
governments of Europe? It was enough for him that he should realize a
fortune; of all the rest, I suppose, he washed his hands. He and men
like him adopt, I have no doubt, precisely the position which you are
trying to show is impossible."
"No," I said, "I am not trying to show that it is impossible in
general; I am only trying to show that it is impossible for you. And
my object is to suggest that if a man does deny a general Good, he
denies it, as I say, at his peril. If his denial is genuine, and
not merely verbal, it will lead him to conduct of the kind I have
"But surely," interrupted Leslie, "you have no right to assume that a
disbelief in a general Good, however genuine, necessarily involves
a sheer egoism in conduct? For a man might find that his own Good
consisted in furthering the Good of other people; and in that case of
course he will try to further it."
"But," I replied, "on our hypothesis there is no Good of other people.
Each individual, we agreed, has his Good, but there is no Good common
to all. And thus we could have no guarantee that in furthering the
Good of one we are also furthering that of others. So that even
supposing a man to believe that his own Good consists in furthering
the Good of others, yet he will not be able to put his belief into
practice, but at most will be able to help some one man, with the
likelihood that in so doing he is thwarting and injuring many others.
Though, therefore, he may not wish to be an egoist, yet he cannot work
for a common Good; and that simply because there is no common Good to
At this point Parry, who had been sitting silent during the
discussion, probably because of its somewhat abstract character,
suddenly broke in upon it as follows. He had a great fund of optimism
and what is sometimes called common sense, which to me was rather
pleasant and refreshing, though some of the others, and especially
Leslie and Ellis, were apt, I think, to find it irritating. His
present speech was characteristic of his manner.
"Ah!" he began, "there you touch upon the point which has vitiated
your argument throughout. You seem to assume that because every man
has his own Good, and there is no Good we can affirm to be common
to all, therefore these individual Goods are incompatible one with
another, so that a man who is intent on his own Good is necessarily
hindering, or, at least, not helping, other people who are intent on
theirs. But I believe, and my view is borne out by all experience,
that exactly the opposite is the case. Every man, in pursuing his own
advantage, is also enabling the rest to pursue theirs. The world, if
you like to put it so, is a world of egoists; but a world constructed
with such exquisite art, that the egoism of one is not only compatible
with, but indispensable to that of another. On this principle all
society rests. The producer, seeking his own profit, is bound to
satisfy the consumer; the capitalist cannot exist without supporting
the labourer; the borrower and lender are knit by the closest ties of
mutual advantage; and so with all the ranks and divisions of mankind,
social, political, economic, or what you will. Balanced, one against
the other, in delicate counterpoise, in subtlest interaction of part
with part, they sweep on in one majestic system, an equilibrium for
ever disturbed, yet ever recovering itself anew, created, it is true,
and maintained by countless individual impulses, yet summing up and
reflecting all of these in a single, perfect, all-harmonious whole.
And when we consider----"
But here he was interrupted by a kind of groan from Audubon; and
Ellis, seeing his opportunity, broke in ironically, as follows:
"The theme, my dear Parry, is indeed a vast one, and suggests
countless developments. When, for example, we consider (to borrow your
own phrase) the reciprocal relations of the householder and the thief,
of the murderer and his victim, of the investor and the fraudulent
company-promoter; when, turning from these private examples, we cast
our eyes on international relations, when we observe the perfect
accord of interest between all the great powers in the far East;
when we note the smooth harmonious working of that flawless political
machine so aptly named the European Concert, each member pursuing its
own advantage, yet co-operating without friction to a common end; or
when, reverting to the economic sphere, we contemplate the exquisite
adjustment that prevails between the mutual interest of labour and
capital--an adjustment broken only now and again by an occasional
disturbance, just to show that the centre of gravity is changing;
when we observe the World Trust quietly, without a creak or a groan,
annihilating the individual producer; or when, to take the sublime
example which has already been quoted, we perceive a single
individual, in the pursuit of his own Good, positively co-operating
with revolutionists on the other side of the globe, and contributing,
by the process of starvation, to the deliverance of a great and
oppressed people--if indeed, in such a world as ours, anyone can
be said to be oppressed--when, my dear Parry, we contemplate these
things, then--then--words fail me! Finish the sentence as you only
"Oh," said Parry, good-naturedly enough, "of course I know very well
you can make anything ridiculous if you like. But I still maintain
that we must take broad views of these matters, and that the position
adopted is substantially correct, if you take long enough periods
of time. Every man in the long run by pursuing his own Good does
contribute also to the Good of others."
"Well," I said, anxious to keep the argument to the main point,
"let us admit for the moment that it is so. You assert, then, that
everyone's Good is distinct from everyone else's, and that there is no
common Good; but that each one's pursuit of his own Good is essential
to the realization of the Good of all the rest"
"Yes," he said; "roughly, that is the kind of thing I believe."
"Well, but," I continued, "on that system there is at least one thing
which we shall have to call a common Good."
"And what is that?"
"Society itself! For society is the condition indispensable to
all alike for the realization of any individual Good; and a common
condition of Good is, I suppose, in a sense, a common Good."
"Yes," he replied, "I suppose, in a sense, it is."
"Well," I said, "I want no larger admission. For under 'society' what
is not included! Sanction society, and you sanction, or at least you
admit the possibility of a sanction for every kind of common activity
and end; and the motives of men in undertaking these common activities
become a matter of comparative indifference. Whatever they are
consciously aiming at, whether it be their own Good, or the Good of
all, or, as is more probable, a varying mixture of both, the fact
remains that they do, and we do, admit a common Good, the maintenance
and development of society itself. And that is all I was concerned to
get you to agree to."
"But," said Leslie, "do you really think that there is no common Good
except this, which you yourself admit to be rather a condition of Good
than Good itself?"
"No," I replied, "that is not my view. I do not, myself, regard
society as nothing but a condition of the realization of independent,
individual Goods. On the contrary, I think that the Good of each
individual consists in his relations with other individuals. But this
I do not know that I am in a position to establish. Meantime, however,
we can, I think, maintain, that few candid men, understanding the
issue, will really deny altogether a common Good; for they will have
to admit that in society we have at the very least a common condition
"But still," objected Leslie, "even so we have no proof that there
is a common Good, but only that most civilized men, if pressed, would
probably admit one."
"Certainly," I replied, "and I pretend nothing more. I have not
attempted to prove that there is a common Good, nor even that it is
impossible not to believe in one. I merely wished to show, as before,
that if a man disbelieves, he disbelieves, so to speak, at his own
peril. And to sum up the argument, what I think we have shown is, that
to deny a common Good is, in the first place, to deny to one's life
and action all worth except what is bound up with one's own Good, to
the complete exclusion of any Good of all. In the second place, it is
to deny all worth to every public and social institution--to religion,
law, government, the family, all activities, in a word, which
contribute to and make up what we call society. Further, it is to
empty history, which is the record of society, of its main interest
and significance, and in particular to eliminate the idea of progress;
for progress, of course, implies a common Good towards which progress
is directed. In brief, it is to strip a man of his whole social self,
and reveal him a poor, naked, shivering Ego, implicated in relations
from which he may derive what advantage he can for himself, but which,
apart from that advantage, have no point or purport or aim; it is to
make him an Egoist even against his will; leaving him for his solitary
ideal a cult of self-development, deprived of its main attraction
by its dissociation from the development of others. Now, if any man,
having a full sense of what is implied in his words (a sense, not
merely conceived by the intellect, but felt, as it were, in every
nerve and tissue) will seriously and deliberately deny that he
believes in a common Good; if he will not merely make the denial with
his lips, but actually carry it out in his daily life, adjusting to
his verbal proposition his habitual actions, feelings, and thoughts;
if he will and can really and genuinely do this, then I, for my part,
am willing to admit that I cannot prove him to be wrong. All I can do
is to set my experience against his, and to appeal to the experience
of others; and we must wait till further experience on either side
leads (if it ever is to lead) to an agreement. But, on the other hand,
if a man merely makes the denial with his lips, because, perhaps, he
conceives it impossible to prove the opposite, or because he sees
that what is good cannot be defined beyond dispute, or whatever other
plausible reason he may have; and if, while he persists in his denial,
he continues to act as if the contrary were true, taking part with
zest and enthusiasm in the common business of life, pushing causes,
supporting institutions, subscribing to societies, and the like, and
that without any pretence that in so doing he is seeking merely his
own Good--in that case I shall take leave to think that he does not
really believe what he says (though no doubt he may genuinely think he
does), and I shall take his life and his habits, the whole tissue of
his instincts and desires, as a truer index to his real opinion than
the propositions he enunciates with his lips."
"But," cried Leslie, "that is a mere appeal to prejudice! Of course
we all want to believe that there is a common Good; the question is,
whether we have a right to."
"Perhaps," I replied, "but the question I wished to raise was the more
modest one, whether we can help it? Whether we have a right or no
is another matter, more difficult and more profound than I care to
approach at present. If, indeed, it could be proved beyond dispute to
the reason, either that certain things are good or that they are not,
there would be no place for such discussions as this. But, it appears,
such proof has not yet been given,--or do you think it has?"
"No!" he said, "but I think it might be and must be!"
"Possibly," I said, "but meantime, perhaps, it is wiser to fall back
on this kind of reasoning which you call an appeal to prejudice,--and
so no doubt in a sense it is; for it is an appeal to the passion men
have to find worth in their lives, and their refusal to accept any
view by which such worth is denied. To anyone who refuses to accept
any judgment about what is good, I prove, or endeavour to prove, that
such refusal cuts away the whole basis of his life; and I ask him if
he is prepared to accept that consequence. If he affirms that he is,
and affirms it not only with his lips but in his action, then I have
no more to say; but if he cannot accept the consequences, then, I
suppose, he will reconsider the premisses, and admit that he does
really believe that judgments about what is good may be true, and,
provisionally, that his own are true, or at least as true as he can
make them, and that he does in fact accept and act upon them as true,
and intends to do so until he is convinced that they are false. And
this attitude of his feelings, you may call, if you like, an attitude
of faith; it is, I think, the attitude most men would adopt if they
were pressed home upon the subject; and to my mind it is reasonable
enough, and rather to be praised than to be condemned."
"I don't think so at all," cried Leslie, "I consider it very
"So do I," said Parry, "and for my part, I can't see what you're all
driving at. You seem to be making a great fuss about nothing."
"Oh no!" retorted Ellis, "not about nothing! about a really delightful
paradox! We have arrived at the conclusion that we are bound to
believe in Good, but that we haven't the least notion what it is!"
"Exactly!" said Parry, "and that is just what I dispute!"
"What? That we are bound to believe in Good?"
"No! But that we don't know what Good is, or rather, what things are
"Oh!" I cried, "do you really think we do know? I wish I could think
that! The trouble with me is, that while I seem to see that we are
bound to trust our judgments about what is good, yet I cannot see
that we know that they are true. Indeed, from their very diversity, it
seems as if they could not all be true. My only hope is, that perhaps
they do all contain some truth, although they may contain falsehood as
"But surely," said Parry, "you exaggerate the difficulty. All the
confusion seems to me to arise from the assumption that we can't see
what lies under our noses. I don't believe, myself, that there is all
this difficulty in discovering Good. Philosophers always assume,
as you seem to be doing, that it is all a matter of opinion and
reasoning, and that opinions and reasons really determine conduct.
Whereas in fact, I believe, conduct is determined, at least in
essentials, by something very much more like instinct. And it is
to this instinct which, by the nature of the case, is simple and
infallible, that we ought to look to tell us what is good, and not
to our reason, which, as you admit yourself, can only land us in
contradictory judgments. I know, of course, that you have a prejudice
against any such view."
"Not at all!" I said, "if only I could understand it. I should be glad
of any simple and infallible criterion; only I have never yet been
able to find one."
"That, I believe, is because you look for it in the wrong place; or,
perhaps, because you look for it instead of simply seeing it. You will
never discover what is good by any process of rational inquiry. It's a
matter of direct perception, above and beyond all argument."
"Perhaps it is," I said, "but surely not of perception, as you said,
simple and infallible?"
"If not that, at least sufficiently clear and distinct for all
practical purposes. And to my mind, all discussion about Good is for
this reason rather factitious and unreal. I don't mean to say, of
course, that it isn't amusing, among ourselves, to pass an hour or two
in this kind of talk; but I should think it very unfortunate if the
habit of it were to spread among the mass of men. For inquiry does
tend in the long run to influence opinion, and generally to influence
it in the wrong way; whereas, if people simply go on following their
instinct, they are much more likely to do what is right, than if they
try to act on so-called rational grounds."
"But," cried Leslie, who during this speech had found obvious
difficulty in containing himself, "what is this instinct which you bid
us follow? What authority has it? What validity? What is its content?
What _is_ it, anyhow, that it should be set up in this way above
"As to authority," replied Parry, "the point about an instinct is,
that its authority is unimpeachable. It commands and we obey; there's
no question about it."
"But there _is_ question about the content of Good."
"I should rather say that we make question. But, after all, how small
a part of our life is affected by our theories! As a rule, we act
simply and without reflection; and such action is the safest and most
"The safest and most prosperous! But how do you know that? What
standard are you applying? Where do you get it from?"
"From common sense."
"And what is common sense?"
"Oh, a kind of instinct too!"
"A kind of instinct? How many are there then? And does every instinct
require another to justify it, and so _ad infinitum_?"
"Logomachy, my dear Leslie!" cried Parry, with imperturbable
good-humour. He had a habit of treating Leslie as if he were a clever
"But really, Parry," I interposed, "this is the critical point. Is
it your view that an instinct is its own sufficient justification, or
does it require justification by something else?"
"No," he said, "it justifies itself. Take, for example, a strong
instinct, like that of self-preservation. How completely it stands
above all criticism! Not that it cannot be criticised in a kind of
dilettante, abstract way; but in the moment of action the criticism
simply disappears in face of the overwhelming fact it challenges."
"Do you mean to say, then," said Leslie, "that because this instinct
is so strong therefore it is always good to follow it?"
"I should say so, generally speaking."
"How is it, then, that you consider it disgraceful that a man should
run away in battle?"
"Ah!" replied Parry, "that is a very interesting point! There you get
a superposition of the social upon the merely individual instinct."
"And how does that come about?"
"That may be a matter of some dispute; but it has been ingeniously
explained as follows. We start with the primary instinct of
self-preservation. This means, at first, that each individual strives
to preserve himself. But as time goes on individuals discover that
they can only preserve themselves by associating with others, and that
they must defend society if they want to defend themselves. They thus
form a habit of defending society; and this habit becomes in time a
second instinct, and an instinct so strong that it even overrides
the primary one from which it was derived; till at last you get
individuals sacrificing in defence of the community those very lives
which they originally entered the community to preserve."
"What a charming paradox!" cried Ellis. "And so it is really true that
every soldier who dies on the field of battle does so only by virtue
of a miscalculation? And if he could but pull himself up and remember
that, after all, the preservation of his life was the only motive that
induced him to endanger it, he would run away like a sensible man, and
try some other device to achieve his end, the device of society having
evidently broken down, so far as he is concerned."
"There you are again," said Parry, "with your crude rationalism! The
point is that the social habit has now become an instinct, and has
therefore, as I say, imperative authority! No operations of the reason
touch it in the least"
"Well," rejoined Ellis, "I must say that it seems to me very hard that
a man can't rectify such an important error. The imposition is simply
monstrous! Here are a number of fellows shut up in society on the
distinct understanding, to begin with, that society was to help them
to preserve their lives; instead of which, it starves them and hangs
them and sends them to be shot in battle, and they aren't allowed
to raise a word of protest or even to perceive what a fraud is being
perpetrated upon them!"
"I don't see that it's hard at all," replied Parry; "it seems to me
a beautiful device of nature to ensure the predominance of the better
"The better instincts!" I cried, "but there is the point! These
instincts of yours, it seems, conflict; in battle, for example, the
instinct to run away conflicts with the instinct to stay and fight?"
"No doubt," he admitted.
"And sometimes one prevails and sometimes the other?"
"And in the one case we say that the man does right, when he stays and
fights; and in the other that he does wrong, when he runs away?"
"I suppose so."
"Well, then, how does your theory of instincts help us to know what is
Good? For it seems that after all we have to choose between instincts,
to approve one and condemn another. And our problem still remains, how
can we do this? how can we get any certainty of standard?"
"Perhaps the faculty that judges is itself an instinct?"
"Perhaps it is," I replied, "I don't really know what an instinct is.
My quarrel is not with the word instinct, but with what seemed to
be your assumption that whatever it is in us that judges about Good
judges in a single, uniform, infallible way. Whereas, in fact, as you
had to admit, sometimes at the same moment it pronounces judgments not
only diverse but contradictory."
"But," he replied, "those seem to me to be exceptional cases. As
a rule the difficulty doesn't occur. When it does, I admit that we
require a criterion. But I should expect to find it in science rather
than in philosophy."
"In science!" exclaimed Leslie. "What has science to do with it?"
"What has _not_ science to do with?" said a new voice from behind. It
was Wilson who, in his turn, had joined us from the breakfast room (he
always breakfasted late), and had overheard the last remark. He was a
lecturer in Biology at Cambridge, rather distinguished in that field,
and an enthusiastic believer in the capacity of the scientific method
to solve all problems.
"I was saying," Leslie repeated in answer to his question, "that
science has nothing to do with the Good."
"So much the worse for the Good," rejoined Wilson, "if indeed that be
"But you, I suppose, would never admit that it is," I interposed. I
was anxious to hear what he had to say, though at the same time I was
desirous to avoid a discussion between him and Leslie, for their types
of mind and habits of thought were so radically opposed that it was
as idle for them to engage in debate as for two bishops of opposite
colour to attempt to capture one another upon a chessboard. He
answered readily enough to my challenge.
"I think," he said, "that there is only one method of knowledge, and
that is the method we call scientific."
"But do you think there is any knowledge of Good at all, even by that
method? or that there is nothing but erroneous opinions?"
"I think," he replied, "that there is a possibility of knowledge, but
only if we abjure dialectics. Here, as everywhere, the only safe guide
is the actual concrete operation of Nature."
"How do you mean?" asked Leslie, his voice vibrating with latent
"I mean that the real significance of what we call Good is only to
be ascertained by observing the course of Nature; Good being in fact
identical with the condition towards which she tends, and morality the
means to attaining it."
"But----" Leslie was beginning, when Parry cut him short.
"Wait a moment!" he said. "Let Wilson have a fair hearing!"
"This end and this means," continued Wilson, "we can only ascertain
by a study of the facts of animal and human evolution. Biology and
Sociology, throwing light back and forward upon one another, are
rapidly superseding the pseudo-science of Ethics."
"Oh dear!" cried Ellis, _sotto-voce_, "here comes the social organism!
I knew it would be upon us sooner or later."
"And though at present, I admit," proceeded Wilson, not hearing, or
ignoring, this interruption, "we are hardly in a position to draw any
certain conclusions, yet to me, at least, it seems pretty clear what
kind of results we shall arrive at."
"Yes!" cried Parry, eagerly, "and what are they?"
"Well," replied Wilson, "I will indicate, if you like, the position
I am inclined to take up, though of course it must be regarded as
"Of course! Pray go on!"
"Well," he proceeded, "biology, as you know, starts with the single
"How do you spell it?" said Ellis, with shameless frivolity, "with a C
or with an S?"
"Of these cells," continued Wilson, imperturbably, "every animal body
is a compound or aggregation; the aggregation involving a progressive
modification in the structure of each cell, the differentiation of
groups of cells to perform special functions,--digestive, respiratory,
and the rest,--and the subordination of each cell or group of cells to
the whole. Similarly, in sociology----"
"Dear Wilson," cried Ellis, unable any longer to contain himself,
"mightn't we take all this for granted?"
"Wait a minute," I said, "let him finish his analogy."
"That's just it!" cried Leslie, "it's nothing but an analogy. And I
don't see how----"
"Hush, hush!" said Parry. "Do let him speak!"
"I was about to say," continued Wilson, "when I was interrupted, that
in the social organism----"
"Ah!" interjected Ellis, "here it is!"
"In the social organism, the individual corresponds to the cell, the
various trades and professions to the organs. Society has thus its
alimentary system, in the apparatus of production and exchange; its
circulatory system, in the network of communications; its nervous
system, in the government machinery; its----"
"By the bye," interrupted Ellis, "could you tell me, for I never could
find it in Herbert Spencer, what exactly in society corresponds to the
"Or the liver?" added Leslie.
"Or the vermiform appendix?" Ellis pursued.
"Oh, well," said Wilson, a little huffed at last, "if you are tired of
being serious it's no use for me to continue."
"I'm sorry, Wilson!" said Ellis. "I won't do it again; but one does
get a little tired of the social organism."
"More people talk about it," answered Wilson, "than really understand
"Very true," retorted Ellis, "especially among biologists."
At this point I began to fear we should lose our subject in polemics;
so I ventured to recall Wilson to the real issue.
"Supposing," I said, "that we grant the whole of your position, how
does it help us to judge what is good?"
"Why," he said, "in this way. What we learn from biology is, that it
is the constant effort of nature to combine cells into individuals
and individuals into societies--the protozoon, in other words,
evolves into the animal, the animal into what some have called the
'hyper-zoon,' or super-organism. Well, now, to this physical evolution
corresponds a psychical one. What kind of consciousness an animal may
have, we can indeed only conjecture; and we cannot even go so far as
conjecture in the case of the cell; but we may reasonably assume
that important psychical changes of the original elements are
accompaniments and conditions of their aggregation into larger
entities; and the morality (if you will permit the word) of the cell
that is incorporated in an animal body will consist in adapting itself
as perfectly as may be to the new conditions, in subordinating its
consciousness to that of the Whole--briefly, in acquiring a social
instead of an individual self. And now, to follow the clue thus
obtained into the higher manifestations of life. As the cell is to the
animal, so is the individual to society, and that on the psychical as
well as on the physical side. Nature has perfected the animal; she
is perfecting society; that is the end and goal of all her striving.
When, therefore, you raise the question, what is Good, biology has
this simple answer to give you: Good is the perfect social soul in the
perfect social body."
As he concluded, Ellis exclaimed softly,"'_Parturiunt montes_,'" and
Leslie took it up with: "And not even a mouse!"
"Whether it is a mouse or no," I said, "it would be hard to say, until
we had examined it more closely. At present it seems to me more like
a cloud, which may or may not conceal the goddess Truth. But the
question I really want to ask is, What particular advantage Wilson
gets from the biological method? For the conclusion itself, I suppose,
might have been reached, and commonly is, without any recourse to the
aid of natural science."
"No doubt," he said, "but my contention is, that it is only by the
scientific method that you get proof. You, for example, may assert
that you believe the social virtues ought to prevail over individual
passions; but if your position were challenged, I don't see how you
would defend it. Whereas I can simply point to the whole evolution of
Nature as tending towards the Good I advocate; and can say:--if you
resist that tendency you are resisting Nature herself!"
"But isn't it rather odd," said Ellis, "that we should be able to
"Not at all," he replied, "for our very resistance is part of the
plan; it's the lower stage persisting into the higher, but destined
sooner or later to be absorbed."
"I see," I said, "and the keynote of your position is, as you said at
the beginning, that Good is simply what Nature wants. So that, instead
of looking within to find our criterion, we ought really to look
without, to discover, if we can, the tendency of Nature and to
acquiesce in that as the goal of our aspiration."
"Precisely," he replied, "that is the position."
"Well," I said, "it is plausible enough; but the plausibility, I am
inclined to think, comes from the fact that you have been able to make
out, more or less, that the tendency of Nature is in the direction
which, on the whole, we prefer."
"How do you mean?"
"Well," I said, "supposing your biological researches had led you to
just the opposite conclusion, that the tendency of Nature was not from
the cell to the animal, and from the individual to society, but in
precisely the reverse direction, so that the end of all things was a
resolution into the primitive elements--do you think you would have
been as ready to assert that it is the goal of Nature that must
determine our ideal of Good?"
"But why consider such a hypothetical case?"
"I am not so sure," I replied, "that it is more hypothetical than
the other. At any rate it is a hypothesis adopted by one of your
authorities. Mr. Herbert Spencer, you will remember, conceives
the process of Nature to be one, not, as you appear to think, of
continuous progress, but rather of a circular movement, from the
utmost simplicity to the utmost complexity of Being, and back again to
the original condition. What you were describing is the movement which
we call upward, and which we can readily enough believe to be good,
at any rate upon a superficial view of it. But now, suppose us to have
reached the point at which the opposite movement begins; suppose what
we had to look forward to and to describe as the course of Nature
were a process, not from simple to complex, from homogeneous to
heterogeneous, or whatever the formula may be, but one in exactly the
contrary direction, a dissolution of society into its individuals,
of animals into the cells of which they are composed, of life into
chemistry, of chemistry into mechanism, and so on through the scale of
Being, reversing the whole course of evolution--should we, in such a
case, still have to say that the process of Nature was right, and that
she is to give the law to our judgment about Good?"
"Yes," he replied, "I think we should; and for this reason. Only those
who do on the whole approve the course of Nature have the qualities
enabling them to survive; the others will, in the long run, be
eliminated. There is thus a constant tendency to harmonize opinions
with the actual process of the world; and that, no doubt, is why we
approve what you call the upward movement, which is the one in which
Nature is at present engaged. But, for the same reason, if, or when,
a movement in the opposite direction should set in, people holding
opinions like ours will tend to be eliminated, while those will tend
to survive more and more who approve the current of evolution then
"And in this way," said Ellis, "an exquisite unanimity will be at last
attained, by the simple process of eliminating the dissentients!"
"Well," cried Leslie, "no doubt that will be very satisfactory for the
people who survive; but it does not help us much. What we want to know
is, what _we_ are to judge to be Good, not what somebody else will be
made to judge, centuries hence."
"And for my part," said Ellis, "I'm not much impressed by the argument
you attribute to Nature, that if we don't agree with her we shall be
knocked on the head. I, for instance, happen to object strongly to
her whole procedure: I don't much believe in the harmony of the final
consummation--even if it were to be final, and not merely the turn of
the tide; and I am sensibly aware of the horrible discomfort of the
intermediate stages, the pushing, kicking, trampling of the host, and
the wounded and dead left behind on the march. Of all this I venture
to disapprove; then comes Nature and says, 'but you ought to approve!'
I ask why, and she says, 'Because the procedure is mine.' I still
demur, and she comes down on me with a threat--'Very good, approve or
no, as you like; but if you don't approve you will be eliminated!' 'By
all means,' I say, and cling to my old opinion with the more affection
that I feel myself invested with something of the glory of a martyr.
Nature, it seems, is waiting for me round the corner because I venture
to stick to my principles. 'Ruat caelum!' I cry; and in my humble
opinion it's Nature, not _I_, that cuts a poor figure!"
"My dear Ellis," protested Wilson, "what's the use of talking like
that? It's not really sublime, it's only ridiculous!"
"Certainly!" retorted Ellis; "it's you who are sublime. I prefer the
"So," I said, "does Wilson, if one may judge by appearances. For I
cannot help thinking he is really laughing at us."
"Not at all," he replied, "I am perfectly serious."
"But surely," I said, "you must see that any discussion about Good
must turn somehow upon our perception of it? The course of Nature may,
as you say, be good; but Nature cannot be the measure of Good; the
measure can only be Good itself; and the most that the study of
Nature could do would be to illuminate our perception by giving it
new material for judgment. Judge we must, in the last resort; and the
judgment can never be a mere statement as to the course which Nature
"Well," said Wilson, "but you will admit at least the paramount
importance of the study of Nature, if we are ever to form a right
"I feel much more strongly," I replied, "the importance of the study
of Man; however, we need not at present discuss that. All that I
wanted to insist upon was, that the contention which you have been
trying to sustain, that it is possible, somehow or other, to get rid
of the subjectivity of our judgments about Good by substituting for
them a statement about the tendencies of Nature--that this contention
cannot be upheld."
"If that be so," he said, "I don't see how you are ever to get a
scientific basis for your judgment."
"I don't know," I replied, "that we can. It depends upon what you
include under science."
"Oh," he said, "by science I mean the resumption in brief formulae of
the sequence of phenomena; or, more briefly, a description of what
"If that be so," I replied, "the method of judging about Good can
certainly not be scientific; for judgments about Good are judgments of
what ought to be, not of what is."
"But then," objected Wilson, "what method is left you? You have
nothing to fall back upon but a chaos of opinions."
"But might there not be some way of judging between opinions?"
"How should there be, in the absence of any external objective test?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Why," he replied, "the kind of test which you have in the case of the
sciences. They depend, in the last resort, not on ideas of ours,
but on the routine of common sense-perception; a routine which is
independent of our choice or will, but is forced upon us from without
with an absolute authority such as no imaginings of our own can
impugn. Thus we get a certainty upon which, by the power of inference,
whose mechanism we need not now discuss, we are able to build up a
knowledge of what is. But when, on the other hand, we turn to such of
our ideas as deal with the Good, the Beautiful, and the like--here
we have no test external to ourselves, no authority superior and
independent. Invite a group of men to witness a scientific experiment,
and none of them will be able to deny either the sequence of the
phenomena produced, or the chain of reasoning (supposing it to be
sound) which leads to the conclusion based upon them. Invite the same
men to judge of a picture, or consult them on a question of moral
casuistry, and they will propound the most opposite opinions; nor will
there be any objective test by which you can affirm that one opinion
is more correct than another. The deliverances of the external sense
are, or at least can be made, by correction of the personal equation,
infallible and the same for all; those of the internal sense are
different not only in different persons, but in the same person at
"Yes," said Leslie, impatiently, "we have all admitted that! The
question is whether--"
"Excuse me," Wilson interposed, "I haven't yet come to my main point.
I was going to say that not merely are there these differences
of opinion, but even if there were not, even if the opinions were
uniform, they would still, as opinions, be subjective and devoid
of scientific validity. It is the external reference that gives its
certainty to science; and such a reference is impossible in the case
of judgments about the Beautiful and the Good. Such judgments are
merely records of what we think or feel. These ideas of ours may or
may not happen to be consistent one with another; but whether they are
so or not, they are merely our ideas, and have nothing to do with the
essential nature of reality."
"I am not sure," I replied, "that the distinction really holds in the
way in which you put it. Let us take for a moment the point of view
of God--only for the sake of argument," I added, seeing him about to
protest. "God, we will suppose, knows all Being through and through
as it really is; and along with this knowledge of reality he has a
conviction that reality is good. Now, with this conviction of his none
other, _ex hypothesi_, can compete; for he being God, we must at any
rate admit that if anybody can be right, it must be he. No one then
can dispute or shake his opinion; and since he is eternal he will
not change it of himself. Is there then, under the circumstances, any
distinction of validity between his judgment that what is, is, and his
judgment that what is, is good?"
"I don't see the use," he replied, "of considering such an imaginary
case. But if you press me I can only say that I still adhere to my
view that any judgment about Good, whether made by God or anybody
else, can be no more than a subjective expression of opinion."
"But," I rejoined, "in a sense, all certainty is subjective, in so far
as the certainty has to be perceived. It is impossible to eliminate
the Subject. In the case, for example, upon which you dwelt, of the
impressions of external sense, the certainty of the impressions is
your and my certainty that we have them; and so in the case of a
cogent argument; for any given person the test of the cogency is his
perception that the cogency is there. And it is the same with
the Beautiful and the Good; there is no conceivable test except
perception. Our difficulty here is simply that perceptions conflict;
not that we have no independent test. But if, as in the case I
imagined, the perception of Good was harmonious with itself, then
the certainty on that point would be as final and complete as the
certainty in the proof of a proposition of Euclid."
"I am afraid," said Wilson, "I don't follow you. You're beginning to
"Call it what you will," I replied, "so long only as it is sense."
"No doubt," he said, "but I don't feel sure that it is."
"In that case you can show me where I am wrong."
"No," he replied, "for, as I said, I can't follow you."
"He means he won't," said Ellis, breaking in with his usual air of
an unprejudiced outsider, "But after all, what does it really matter?
Whatever the reason may be for our uncertainty as to Good, the fact
remains that we are uncertain. There's my Good, thy Good, his Good,
our Good, your Good, their Good; and all these Goods in process of
flux, according to the time of day, the time of life, and the state
of the liver. That being so, what is the use of discussing Good
in itself? And why be so disturbed about it? There's Leslie, for
instance, looking as if the bottom were knocked out of the universe
because he can't discover his objective standard! My dear boy, life
goes on just the same, my life, his life, your life, all the lives.
Why not make an end of the worry at once by admitting frankly that
Good is a chimaera, and that we get on very well without it?"
"But I don't get on well without it!" Leslie protested.
"No," I said, "and I hoped that by this time we were agreed that none
of us could. But Ellis is incorrigible."
"You don't suppose," he replied, "that I am going to agree with you
merely because you override me in argument--even if you did, which you
"But at least," cried Leslie, "you needn't tell us so often that you
"Very well," he said, "I am dumb." And for a moment there was silence,
till I began to fear that our argument would collapse; when, to my
relief, Parry returned to the charge.
"You will think me," he began, "as obstinate as Ellis; but I can't
help coming back to my old point of view. Somehow or other, I feel
sure you are making a difficulty which the practical man does not
really feel. You object to my saying that he knows what is good by
instinct; but somehow or other I am sure that he does know it. And
what I suggest now is, that he finds it written in experience."
"In whose experience?" Leslie asked defiantly.
"In that of the race, or, at least, in that of his own age and
country. Now, do be patient a moment, and let me explain! What I want
to suggest is, that every civilization worth the name possesses, in
its laws and institutions, in the customs it blindly follows, the
moral code it instinctively obeys, an actual objective standard,
worked out in minute detail, of what, in every department of life,
really is good. To this standard every plain man, without reasoning,
and even without reflexion, does in fact simply and naturally conform;
so do all of us who are discussing here, in all the common affairs of
our daily life. We know, if I may say so, better than we know; and the
difficulties into which we are driven, in speculations such as
that upon which we are engaged, arise, to my mind, from a false and
unnecessary abstraction--from putting aside all the rich content
of actual life, and calling into the wilderness for the answer to a
question which solves itself in the street and the market-place."
"Well," I said, "for my own part, I am a good deal in sympathy with
what you say. At the same time there is a difficulty."
"A difficulty!" cried Leslie, "there are hundreds and thousands!"
"Perhaps," I replied, "but the particular one to which I was referring
is this. Every civilization, no doubt, has its own standard of Good;
but these standards are different and even opposite; so that it would
seem we require some criterion by which to compare and judge them."
"No," cried Parry, "that is just what I protest against. We are not
concerned with other ideals than our own. Every great civilization
believes in itself. Take, for instance, the ancient Greeks, of
whom you are so fond of talking. In my opinion they are absurdly
over-estimated; but they had at least that good quality--they believed
in themselves. To them the whole non-Greek world was barbarian; the
standard of Good was frankly their own standard; and it was a standard
knowable and known, however wide might be the deviations from it in
practice. We find accordingly that for them the ideal was rooted in
the real. Plato, even, in constructing his imaginary republic,