The Meaning of Good–A Dialogue by G. Lowes Dickinson

Proofreading Team from images provided by the Million Book Project THE MEANING OF GOOD–A DIALOGUE BY G. LOWES DICKINSON Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and Author of a Modern Symposium THIRD EDITION 1900 DEDICATION How do the waves along the level shore Follow and fly in hurrying sheets of foam, For ever doing what they
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  • 1901
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Proofreading Team from images provided by the Million Book Project



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 these ideas.

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 these ideas.

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 ‘common sense.’

(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 accepted.

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 approached.

* * * * *


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_ Good.’

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 in difficulty.

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 Beauty.

(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 total Beauty.

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 absolutely good.

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 Good?

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 sufficiently interested.

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 original view.”

“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 people’s.”

“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 men’s ideals.”

“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 Wrong.”

“In fact,” interposed Audubon, “you agree, like me, with Sir Richard Burton:

“‘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 time,
Each vice has worn a virtue’s crown, all good been banned as sin or crime.'”

“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 mere chaos.”

“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 good.”

“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 good.”

“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 follows?”

“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 proceeding.

“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 discuss.”

“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 validity.”

“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 I do.”

“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 other?”

“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 theory?”

“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.”

“Necessary, why?”

“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 argument.

“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 choices.”

“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 chaos.”

“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 proved it.”

“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 sense.”

“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 eternal.”

“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.”

“Well, what?”

“Why, what I have been trying, apparently without success, to explain.”

“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 Goods.”

“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 proved.”

“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 general?”

“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 Parliament.”


“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 the war?”

“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 admit that?”

“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 general Good?”

“‘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 described.”

“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 work for.”

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 can.”

“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 of Good.”

“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 unsatisfactory.”

“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 good.”

“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 well.”

“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 reason?”

“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 prosperous.”

“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 child.

“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 instincts.”

“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 true.”

“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 hostility.

“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 provisional.”

“Of course! Pray go on!”

“Well,” he proceeded, “biology, as you know, starts with the single cell—-“

“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 spleen?”

“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 it.”

“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 resist Nature?”

“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 prevailing.”

“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 ridiculous.”

“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 is pursuing.”

“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 judgment?”

“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 happens.”

“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 different times.”

“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 talk metaphysics.”

“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 don’t.”

“But at least,” cried Leslie, “you needn’t tell us so often that you disagree.”

“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,