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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The ideas of the good and the right span the greater
part of the field of moral philosophy. They conceptu-
alize basic phenomena in human life: the good, that
men are purposive or goal-seeking beings who have
desires and aspirations; and the right, that men carry
on their lives in groups that require some modes of
organization and regulation involving practices, rules,
and institutions. Perhaps the only other moral idea
approaching them in scope is virtue as conceptualizing
forms of character.

Philosophers of each generation have analyzed the
concepts, bringing to them the analytic tools of succes-
sive philosophical movements, or invoking models from
the particular stages in the advance of the sciences or
frontiers of human knowledge. Ordinary uses, cultural
molding, philosophical formulations, interact with one
another. The product finds its place in the moral con-
sciousness of men when they think and talk in terms
of the good and the right.

The story of the good and the right is not, as it has
so often seemed, the tale of two isolated concepts
sitting for philosophical portraits in a variety of rather
grand poses. Historical changes in the dominant cul-
tural emphases—in the patterns of aspiration and
modes of institutional regulation—also transform the
conceptual relations. Varied historical movements and
social organizations leave their mark on the very
structure of the concepts. As men's understanding of
their world advances, as their consciousness gains in
scope and in depth, so their moral philosophy is shaped
by the leading motifs of their scientific and cultural
disciplines. And the resultant moral concepts are not
merely products. For the concepts themselves do not
function alone, but enter into conceptual frameworks
in which they give organizational direction and which
they shape for use.

Two Basic Frameworks. The two major frameworks
in which the good and the right are chiefly at home
may be called, respectively, the goal-seeking framework
and the juridical framework. They are not comple-
mentary portions of the moral field but alternative
ways of organizing the whole field to carry out the
tasks of morality.

The goal-seeking framework assumes a structure of
appetition or desire in human life. The good is defined
either by position of the objective in this pursuit or
by some basic character of the objective. Knowledge
of the good helps generate a grasp of appropriate
means towards its achievement. The rules of action that
achieve the good determine what is right, and the
character-traits that support such a moral code are
regarded as virtues. The concept of the good life, either
in its own name or thought of as “the ideals of life,”
dominates the framework and provides the end-point
in justifying action or policy. The other typical ethical
concepts—right and virtue—are definitely subordi-
nated. Such a model is found in most of the ethical
theories that look to human nature for an under-
standing of men's basic goals or directions of striving.

The juridical framework, on the other hand, sees
ethics as a system of laws or rules enjoined on human
beings. They constitute the “moral law.” The frame-
work usually includes some explanatory justification for
the law, grounding it in divine will or some natural
order or inherent rationality. Men are taken to have
an intellectual capacity for recognition of the moral
law and some affective capacity through which the
system normally takes hold or wins their respect and
obedience. The concept of right—or others of the same
cluster, such as duty or obligation—dominates this
conceptual framework. Virtue is tied to the disposition
of conscientious obedience, and the good, usually set
off as the moral good and distinguished from the merely
natural goods, the desires and satisfactions of men, is
identified with the goals that the moral law renders

Each of these frameworks purports to cover the
whole field, but they interpret moral processes in
markedly different ways. Each focuses what is going
on in human life, to which morality applies, somewhat
differently. Each selects from the repertoire of human
feelings which ones are to do the heavy work of
morality—the goal-seeking leaning more to desire and
aspiration, or else to satisfaction and pleasure, the
juridical to guilt, shame, and awe. Each organizes its
selected content in a different pattern, the one usually
in terms of a hierarchy of means and ends, culminating
in some systematic ultimate end, the other in terms
of universal rules and their special applications. Such
organization-modes strongly influence the methods of
decision in morality: in the goal-seeking, it is the find-
ing of appropriate strategies, in the juridical it is de-


duction from principles. Each appeals to different
modes of justification for its morality—the one to the
ultimate good which fully satisfies men's longing and
aspiration, the other to the reason that grasps ultimate
principles or the will that commands them. Each tends
to marshall different sanctions to support the morality—
the one the operative effects of pleasure and pain, of
hope and accomplishment or else dread of loss, the
other the fear of authoritative punishment or the pangs
of conscience. Thus each framework has a definite
orientational effect in the lives of men who so construe
their morals.

The goals and substantial codes of a morality, its
scope and its basic attitudes, vary considerably with
different cultural patterns and in different historical
periods. One moral code may be concerned about sex,
another about property and status, all usually about
aggression in interpersonal relations and about the
conditions of social order. The codes of some may focus
chiefly on acts, of others on inner feelings and attitudes.
Some center on familial or kin group in scope, others
are more broadly national or even universalistic and
individualistic. Some are broad and relaxed in attitude,
others narrowly intense and stringent. All such sub-
stantial features can be cast in either basic framework,
although not always as easily or comfortably. For ex-
ample, a nationalistic morality may be juridical or
goal-seeking, and attitudes of stringency may take
shape either in the sharpness of juridical command or
the narrowness of a driving goal such as success and
status through work and personal effort.

The history of the relation of the good and the right
in ethics is thus the history of the relation of these
conceptual frameworks and their transformation under
the growth of human knowledge, the changes in social
and cultural forms, the emergence of varying human
purposes, and the refinement of philosophical theory.
It is a complex history, quite revealing about the role
of categories of thought in human life, and though it
exhibits a definite intellectual dialectic it is scarcely
a dance of bloodless categories.

Antiquity. In ancient times the juridical mode of
thought had its marked development in Hebraic reli-
gion, with God as the lawgiver, the Decalogue and
associated rules as the code of right and wrong, obliga-
tions under original compact for the Hebrew people
with God, sanctions of a familial or paternal type with
a fusion of awe and love, and decision-modes that grew
increasingly legalistic in Talmudic jurisprudence. The
appropriate character for men and women was set in
this framework, and the good operated as rewards for
obedience. The spread of this outlook in Christian
morality, with a change to a universalistic form, the
coordination of each soul directly to the divine, and
the shift to other-worldly salvation as the unifying
good, paralleled by eternal damnation as a major moral
sanction, set the background for most Western moral-
ity, affecting the basic framework even when the ex-
plicit religious justification receded in philosophical

In pre-Platonic Greek thought, the concept of nomos
had an incipient juridical character. This expressed a
customary morality whose rules were static and con-
ceptualized as an eternal traditional order, eternal
betokening usually divine as well. When class conflicts
arose in the Greek city-states and philosophical reflec-
tion grew on the cultural variety of moral codes, the
notion of nomos became interpreted as merely cus-
tomary in the sense of conventional. This was the
dominant trend in the Sophists. The social impact of
this view varied somewhat. For the most part, morality
was regarded as rules, different in different cultures
to be sure, but directed under these varying conditions,
and more or less successfully, to the maintenance of
stability and social order as human needs. To an ex-
tremist wing (such as Thrasymachus in Plato's Repub-
), it became construed as merely the rules of the
stronger imposed for their own interests to keep the
masses in check, so that the really wise individual could
quietly pursue his own predatory interests. In a few
radical views the conventional character of morality
meant it could be altered and improved; slavery, for
example, being thus a conventional institution, not a
natural requirement. In all of these, though the inter-
pretation of what was natural for man varied, the direct
contrast became that between custom (nomos) and
nature (physis).

Socrates and Plato refined the goal-seeking frame-
work. In Socrates' persistent inquiry, some of the gen-
eral properties of the good began to emerge. The good
has a magnetic power on us, for no man willingly does
what he knows to be evil. It is in some sense capable
of being grasped as an object of knowledge, or perhaps
capable of being sought and glimpsed, for Socrates
more modestly, constantly claimed his wisdom lay in
knowing his ignorance. The knowledge involved will
in some sense thus be intellectual and practical and
affective, either fused or at any rate undifferentiated.
When we try to understand any of our particular
virtues, such as courage or temperance, we find that
they lose their essence if they do not involve a knowl-
edge of the good. Virtues are thus found to be appli-
cations, through knowledge, of the good, so that no
issue arises of the possible conflict of a man's moral
behavior and his true well-being. Insofar as Socrates
has any explicit view of the right that is not directly
bound up in the quest of the individual's soul for the
good, it is seen as a contractual commitment with the


institutions of one's community to share in a given
mode of life and take the sufferings and even injustices
when they fall on one. In this way, Socrates, in the
Crito, justifies his refusal to escape from prison.

Plato develops both the basic theory of the good
as a goal-seeking ethic and the theory of right or justice
as an order in the soul which enables it to move toward
the good. The former is seen in Socrates' speech in
the Symposium, which expounds the concept of love
(eros) as a searching of the soul for the Absolute Good.
Specific aims—such as to have children, to create
works of art, to order the lives of men, to achieve
knowledge—are simply forms of this one ultimate
quest for the Absolute. In the Republic, the Idea of
the Good is presented as the analogue, in the domain
of the eternal, to the visible sun in the changing sensi-
ble world—the source of all being, of illumination and
intelligibility, and of value in existence. This gathering
of the real, the rational, and the valuable into a single
bundle, persisted through the religious picture of the
divine, and the attempts in the modern period to derive
an ethics from the picture of the order of nature and
human nature. The structure did not fall apart until
the twentieth-century demands for the complete au-
tonomy of ethics.

In Plato, the part of the human being engaged in
this quest is identified as the rational element (the
human part). But the soul is assigned two other parts,
the spirited and the appetitive (compared to the lion
and the dragon). The comprehensive theory of justice
or the right in the Republic is an attempt to justify,
in both social and inner individual life, a repressive
order in which reason rules and with the aid of the
lion keeps the dragon in his place. Selection of goals,
specific virtues, aims in life, are all assessed in terms
of the character of the part of the soul involved and
its contribution to the harmonious order. Even Plato's
theory of history as an unavoidable deterioration from
an aristocratic society through oligarchic and demo-
cratic forms down to tyranny (Republic, Book VIII),
sees this change as the descent of the soul as the dragon
is progressively unleashed. Plato's theory of right thus
embodies a conservative program to control the masses
by a dominant elite which in its single-minded devotion
to the ultimate good will overcome the war of the rich
and the poor that beset the Greek cities of his epoch.

Aristotle gave the goal-seeking framework its fullest
systematic development. His Nicomachean Ethics is the
first systematic treatise of Western moral philosophy.
The framework is an immanent or indwelling teleology
in things. Nature works like the artist or craftsman with
a plan governing its action. Every species has its own
governing plan, and its good lies in the development
in its individuals of the capacities with which they are
endowed. Man is a rational animal, reason supervening
on and imbuing his vegetative and animal capacities.
Aristotle thus rejects the unified Platonic Idea of the
Good. Ethics is a practical science concerned with the
human good, part of the whole science of politics in
which the plan of the good for man is grasped as a
guide to practice. The human good, what all men aim
at, is identified as happiness or well-being, though men
debate the activities in which it lies and the mode of
life it demands. While the Ethics explores the kinds
of character this life points to—the varieties of virtues
and the nature of virtue, and the inner nature of asso-
ciational bonds—the Politics deals with desirable insti-

The place of the right in Aristotle's teleological
ethics is revealing. There is no central “ought” com-
manding in the name of the moral law. The various
functions which such a concept combines in the juridi-
cal framework are here patterned in a different way.
Reason is, of course, central in the philosophy, but its
ethical job is less to enunciate universal laws than to
work out applications of our knowledge of the good
and the virtues in which that knowledge is expressed.
The concept involved is rather doing what is fitting
in particular situations that differ in time, place, con-
text of persons and relations, and with a view to the
special powers and limitations of the persons and
groups involved. (This is the just-right, as against too
much and too little, which appears in Aristotle's doc-
trine of virtue as the mean.) Men pray, he tells us, for
the good, but they should pray that what is good
generally or simply be good for them; and in the
Politics he compromises on a balance of democracy
and oligarchy as the most suitable for the Greek city-
states as they exist. The element of universality appears
in a concept of natural political justice, a precursor
of the later conception of natural law, but without the
latter's idea of divine command; in Aristotle it is the
universally applicable rules of the structure of the good
life. Decision, too, is not seen by Aristotle as subsump-
tion under rule, but as means-end analysis; the man
of practical wisdom, whose experience and upbringing
have brought to maturity his logical power and aware-
ness of the good, is most sensitive in relation to the
particular, and can serve as a useful model for the less
mature and the uncertain.

In the individualistic ethics of the Hellenistic period,
when the common social good disintegrates (together
with the city-state) as a governing ideal, the good
becomes cast in individualistic terms. In the Epicurean
philosophy, it is pleasure, peace and relief from pain,
and, if possible, quiet joy rather than hectic pursuit.
The metaphysical background is an atomic materi-
alism, including rejection of teleology, acceptance of


mortality and a denial of punishment in a hereafter.
Since the Epicurean sociology of human development
pictures the growth of human learning and the shed-
ding of superstition, the right appears as naturalistic
rules or practices or institutions, servicing the human

The Stoics too seek internal peace or tranquillity
of spirit as the basic good, but tie it to a notion of
individual virtue as its single condition and manifesta-
tion. Their outlook represents a point of transformation
away from the goal-seeking framework. A juridical
element enters in their concept of nature as a rational
divine order in things. Their point of view is cosmic,
beginning with the cosmopolitan impulse of Alex-
ander's conquests and going on to the late Roman
empire. The moral community is that of all men, each
with a fragment of the divine fire. A duty-like concept
makes its appearance in that one should do what the
divine has ordered or arranged, but the order comes
in the assignment of role, or what befits one's place.
Particular decisions are thus expressive of the jobs or
offices in which one finds oneself. This conception of
an ordered system of reason for man was extremely
influential in the development of the idea of natural
law. Yet back of this whole juridical aspect is a view
of the world in which there is no permanence and all
is precarious. As Marcus Aurelius vividly depicts it,
life and achievement and memory go by in a Heracli-
tean flux. The only real good throughout is virtue, the
maintenance of integrity of the self by stern inner
rational control of what alone is in our power—our
response or reaction to what happens to us, and a
resignation to whatever befalls us in which our tenden-
cies to violent emotion undergo a rational dissolution.

Thus, although Stoic ethics enters the scene under
the classical concept of the good, and finds a place
in practice for a system of the right, its central stress
on virtue and the self is working towards a newer
framework, a kind of self-development model which
is, in the history of ethics, a major alternative to the
right and the good. It is this framework too which best
fits the many ethics of salvation that characterized the
decline of the Roman world, such as the Neo-Platonic
vision of the path of the self in its attempt to overcome
its original estrangement from divine unity and to
merge eventually with the One. Christian ethics with
its early inner stress has many elements of this model,
but it is firmly kept within a juridical framework by
its Hebraic origin and heritage.

Yet even a self-development framework will find
within itself the tension of the good and the right, or
of their surrogates. This is well seen in the ethics of
Augustine. The good is found in the blessedness for
which he longs, the right in the straining of every effort
to keep on the path to its achievement. The wrong
is more evident in the multitudes of temptations that
lie along the way. Even the most harmless pleasures
may distract one from the goal, and even in the act
of prayer Augustine is suspicious of the seductive
beauty of language and of music. It is this deep probing
into the willfulness of the will and the ultimate charac-
ter of man's responsibility (in spite of God's selection
of only a chosen few for salvation) which gives force
to the Augustinian concept of sin, whether he addresses
himself to portraying the child in the cradle or the
youth in exuberant folly, or the whole history of man-
kind from creation to resurrection. The analysis of sin
shows the individual soul as the battleground, for moral
evil lies in acquiescence or yielding in the will itself,
rather than in the consequent natural action.

The Era of Christian Dominance. Once established,
Christian thought dominated all of ethics and political
philosophy in the West until the breakaway under
secular and scientific influences gained strength by the
seventeenth century. Yet Christian thought itself in-
cluded a multitude of differing tendencies.

The Thomistic synthesis of Christian and Aristotelian
elements brought the juridical and goal-seeking frame-
works into an apparent unity. The central Aristotelian
conceptual apparatus, with its orientation towards the
good, was incorporated as a whole. But the end
changed from the kind of happiness Aristotle had
delineated in his natural teleology to the salvation goal
of the Christian theology. The crucial confrontation
of the good and the right comes, therefore, in the
meeting-point where the ultimate good is steered into
the channels of the juridical right. If the soul is directed
to God by its original nature in God's creation, it is
guided ultimately by God's law, which is juridical in
form and scope. In part, but only in part, this eternal
law can be apprehended by man's reason, and so is
seen as the natural law, expressive of man's nature.
Beyond lies what man must obey on grounds of revela-

In essence the concepts of right and wrong dominate
the system, as can be seen in the prominence of the
notion of sin, already basic in Augustine's thought. Yet
the good continues to operate through the weight of
the sanctions of eternal salvation and eternal damna-
tion, and also in the justification of the system as a
whole. The dramatic unity of the whole is most evident
in the literary presentation of Dante's Divine Comedy.
In the first part, the Inferno, there is a careful grading
of sins in the descent to the bottom of Hell, the distance
from God and the shutting out of God's light being
the measure of sin. In the third part, the Paradiso, there
is the ascent of the virtues towards the point of ultimate
union in the direct contemplation of God; but each


soul stays in its allotted place according to its capacity,
the spirit of love holding each and stilling its desire
to move further upward. In both the heavenly areas
and the nether areas, the categorial tension of good
and evil as against right and wrong is resolved. In the
heavenly, the love of God is the basis of that aspiration
which defines the good, and the right lies in the accep-
tance of the divine order. In the nether regions, the
clarity of the wrong is seen in the punishment of sin,
and the evil in the nature and intensity of the torments.

The emergence of the Protestant ethic in its different
forms was not a questioning of the good so much as
a vital alteration in the structure of the right. Salvation
remained the goal of aspiration but the system of rules
for its achievement was transformed. In Calvinism, the
assurance of salvation was to be sought in success in
one's calling, and a fresh cluster of virtues—the
“puritan” morality of hard work, sobriety, thrift, absti-
nence, justice—was required as a necessary condition.
Yet through this picture of the right we can discern
the content of the good changing into the worldly ideal
of success and the pursuit of wealth. The relation of
the Protestant ethic to the economic changes and the
rise of the bourgeoisie has been explored and debated
in the writings of Marx, Max Weber, R. H. Tawney,
and others. The language of the right still remains as
the language of natural law, in the treatises on morality
and politics, shifting to that of natural rights as the
concept of nature itself undergoes change, as individ-
ualism gains strength, and the process of secularization
gains momentum. The concept of the good is similarly
individualized and secularized, especially with the
growing impact of the sciences.

An Age of Transition: From Hobbes to Kant. The
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries constitute a rev-
olutionary period not merely on the social scene, with
new classes moving into political power, but also on
the intellectual scene, with the philosophies of the old
order breaking up, and even the defenses of the older
ways taking new and sophisticated form. The intellec-
tual leaven is furnished by the growth of physical
science, but it casts its hopes far beyond—in physiol-
ogy, in psychology and economics, in political theory,
and in the reinterpretation of morality.

In ethics, Hobbes expresses a shift to the extreme;
he becomes the specter that haunts moral theory.
Teleology is gone: the world and man are well-
organized phenomena of matter-in-motion operating
under causal laws. Reason is no immediate grasping
of ultimate truth by the intellect but, though pro-
foundly mathematical, a manipulator of names; yet the
beginnings of an inductive theory, in the sense of the
lessons of experience, are also to be found. That which
men desire they call good, that from which they seek
to flee they call bad. The internal detail is complex,
but the overall effect is undoubted; the good is com-
pletely naturalized in terms of individual desire. The
natural is the original state of man, with the unlimited
egoism of desire. The system of right is reduced to the
principles of human relations that will furnish the
peace, law, and order needed for men to pursue their
aims. These are called natural laws, in the sense that
they are what a reasoning man drawing on the lessons
of experience will recognize as essential for social
order. In the state of nature a man has a right to
anything he can take and hold.

The Continental ethical counterpart to Hobbes, in
some respects, is Spinoza. Here too, good was given
a naturalistic form as the object of appetite; teleology
is refuted and a deterministic pattern set in which all
that happens flows with mathematical necessity from
the ultimate character of nature. But Spinoza's impact
is considerably softened by several features. The whole
of reality is also interpreted as God. The highest good
is found in the exercise of reason, and the right is
primarily oriented to removing obstacles for its har-
monious development. Human virtue is turned from
a predatory orientation to a self-conquest: as one comes
to understand the necessity in one's actions, the insight
transforms the turbulent emotions into clear ideas. The
active mastery replacing passive reception in such
transformation constitutes human freedom and the
highest good is attained in the intuitive grasp of
totality. Political freedom and nobler human relations
flow from a Spinozistic as against a Hobbesian neces-
sity. Thus although the immediate reception of Spinoza
was hostile, as in the case of Hobbes, in the long run
he stands out sharply as the propounder of an exalted

Three trends, marked in Hobbes, set the direction
for much of the moral theory that followed. First, the
secular character of the inquiry became dominant. In
Hobbes, religion has its place mainly as a sanction. In
Bentham's formulation, by the end of the eighteenth
century, it is only religious belief that operates as a
sanction; the truth of religion is unnecessary. Yet the
absence of religious argumentation in the inner in-
quiries of ethics does not remove it from the outer
background. Just as Newton does not look for an evo-
lution of matter because he assumes the physical world
set up by God, so the assumption that man's nature
on which ethics depends will not be transformed, that
a permanent moral order can be found, is either di-
rectly dependent on religious presuppositions or else
the intellectual residue of the traditional outlook. Sec-
ond, the natural state of man, whether seen as histori-
cally prior or as an analytic device for understanding
original components in his makeup, is cast in individ-


ualistic terms. It is not a system of inherent human
relations, but somehow a set of properties of the indi-
vidual. Even when Locke questions the amorality of
Hobbes' state of nature, the moral rights that Locke
describes—the natural rights of life, liberty, and
property—stand out more as individual rights than as
divine prescriptions for an ordered society.

In the third place, the locus of controversy about
the good and the right is displaced from the social
forum to the inner psychology of the individual. To
refute Hobbesian egoism is to show that the individual
has authentic inner sentiments of a social or other-
oriented nature. Bishop Butler's strategy of refutation
is both complex and sophisticated. He first shifts the
concept of the good from the object of the individual's
appetites or passions to a rational self-love, quite dis-
tinct from the passions, which seeks to maximize the
harmonious achievement of the desires, since obviously
desires are in conflict and can lead one away from one's
good. This enables him to establish a concept of right
in the regulative authority of self-love over the pas-
sions. Further introspection reveals benevolence,
whether as a distinct principle or as an other-regarding
sentiment. Still further lies conscience, whose authority
is introspectively established, as was that of self-love,
over the passions.

It remains but to reconcile conscience and self-love
by the claim that their voices will in fact be found
in accord, and that apparent discrepancies will be
found to be simply dissident passions. In Hume and
in Adam Smith the operation of sympathy as a natural
principle is defended as against Hobbes' attempted
reduction of compassion to an imaginative feeling of
one's own suffering if one were in the particular plight
that has overtaken the other. In general, the good,
while still conceived as what satisfies human desire,
is neatly parceled into the self-regarding and the
other-regarding. This reflects the dominant growth of
an individualism in the social institutions and the moral
acceptability of an acquisitive worldly mode of life.
The self-regarding is no longer equated with the im-
moral; it is, if not excessive, established as a proper
part of the moral. The focus for right falls increasingly
on the problem of reconciling the conflict of individual
goods. Hume stresses the instrumental character of
conceptions of justice, and from Butler to Adam Smith
there is the assurance that the unseen hand of Provi-
dence will guarantee that each man's pursuit of his
own good will produce an effect of enhancement on
others' good. But it takes different shades. Sometimes
the individual is being reassured that an enlightened
egoism will turn out for the best. Sometimes, however,
he is being prompted to directly virtuous action and
assured it will turn out for his own good too. Only
occasionally, as in the maverick outlook of Mandeville,
do we find an array of empirical argument that if men
really practiced the virtues it would yield public pov-
erty and consequently private misfortune, and that
public welfare rests on private vices!

Indeed, a considerable part of eighteenth-century
ethical theorizing is cast not in terms of the right and
the good, but in terms of virtue and vice, and our
appreciative responses to others' character. In this
whole movement, the moral good becomes primarily
the good man, as contrasted with simply the natural
goods of desire and satisfaction. Major epistemological
controversies in morals take the form of finding the
basis of moral judgment in reason or in sentiment.

The emerging utilitarianism of the latter part of the
eighteenth century inherits the framework of the good
defined in individual terms and the right in terms of
social utility. In Bentham, the goal-seeking framework
is wholly triumphant. Every man by psychological
constitution seeks pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
A community is simply a mass of individuals. The
community problem is to achieve the greatest happi-
ness of the greatest number. “Good” means either
pleasure or the objects which are sources of pleasure.
“Right” and “ought” are terms that have a meaning
only with respect to courses of conduct productive of
the greatest pleasure and avoidance of pain.

Both notions in utilitarianism have a more compli-
cated character than appears at first. Pleasure as the
single goal, extracted from any and every object of
striving, begins to serve as a standard of measurement
rather than as a goal. The orientation of the theory
is to measurement; the good is the maximum pleasure
attainable in a given situation. What is desired consti-
tutes only an initial datum for the measurement; an
appeal simply to the fact of desire is arbitrary, and
Bentham attacks the principle of sympathy and
antipathy—deciding by likes and dislikes—as capri-
cious. The basic orientation to the good becomes intel-
ligible in the light of the historical context. Increas-
ingly, in Bentham's lifetime, the industrial revolution
is under way, a policy of laissez-faire and material
progress is coming to the center, an expansive this-
worldly libertarian outlook is seen as the key to
progress. The stress comes to be on consciousness of
aims in order to reform institutions that stand in the

The traditional notion of the right now appears in
several ways. There is first the basic social interest in
institutional forms which require analysis so that they
may become vehicles for the forward energies of men
rather than obstacles. The right is therefore the system
of institutions to serve this purpose. There is, second,
the equalitarian assumption—everyone counts as one


in the reckoning of the pleasures and pains. Much of
the theoretical problem in the relation of the right and
the good in utilitarianism comes to take the form of
controversy as to whether this equalitarian principle is
derivable within the theory or is an outside assumption
imported into the system—for example, whether a
commitment to maximizing pleasure can be shown to
involve maximizing its distribution. There is, in the
third place, the practical question of reconciling indi-
vidual motivations to make them aim at the greatest
general happiness. Bentham, like Adam Smith, relies
to some extent on a natural identity of interest among
men (in economics and the theory of virtue), but sup-
plements it with an artificial identification of interests
by use of sanctions (in politics and law). And finally,
there is the question of justice and the human senti-
ments that center about it—whether these do not con-
tain some irreducible idea of right and wrong.

This last problem, like many of the others, is most
analytically considered by J. S. Mill. Although he is
entirely a nineteenth-century figure, responding to
fresh problems after the changes in England that follow
the Reform Bill of 1832 and the emergence of the labor
movement, his treatment of justice is relevant here.
In Chapter 5 of his Utilitarianism he distinguishes
sharply between the actual sentiments men have and
what is moral in them, and he elaborately examines
the wholly utilitarian character of justice. In brief, he
traces the root ideas of ought and of merit to the
convictions that punishment and censure, and reward,
will be conducive to the general welfare. As for justice,
it refers basically to principles of distribution in all
fields, of gains and burdens. And while men have held
to all sorts of such principles, the question of which
to employ in what field is a matter of utilitarian reck-
oning. Men's moral sentiments constitute no contrary
evidence, for they are built up in social life out of
rudimentary reactions such as the desire for retaliation,
and contain no inner justifying principle. It is the more
important human institutions that build up the more
peremptory sentiments. In general, Mill is more con-
scious than Bentham of the way in which association
develops attitudes and sentiments so as even to bring
changes in the nature of man. At the end he is quite
far removed from psychological hedonism in his theory
of virtue as becoming a part of happiness rather than
simply an instrument to it.

If Mill went as far as seems possible in reducing the
concept of right to utility in the framework of the
good, Kant had already in the latter part of the eight-
eenth century posed the opposite reduction, and in a
form that has come increasingly to dominate contem-
porary ethics. Kant is quite ready to surrender the
theory of motivation to hedonism. But men's inclina
tions, their affections, the rules for achieving happiness,
are not questions of morality. They tell us what is the
case, and what to do if we wish to pursue certain ends.
They do not tell us what we ought to do. The basic
moral concept is that of duty. Its commands are abso-
lute or categorical, not hypothetical. This he takes to
be clear in the ordinary moral consciousness; our re-
spect is directed toward the man who conscientiously
obeys the moral law in spite of suffering and contrary
inclinations. Kant's conceptual framework is briefly
this: man is a rational being, morality presupposes
freedom (a postulate incapable of rational or empirical
proof but required for morality), freedom is self-
determination by law willed for the community of all
rational beings. Hence the test for the morality of a
proposed maxim is whether one would consistently will
it as a law for all men. Morality thus is not determined
by inclination or external command (even by divine
command). As Kant says, it is autonomous, not heter-
onomous. A wholly moral being will follow the moral
law without inner conflict; this is a holy will. But men
live in two worlds, that of inclination as well as that
of freedom. Hence obligation is the sense of duty
curbing inclination. This is reason being practical.
Virtue lies in the continuous effort to follow the ought.
The good lies in happiness coming together with vir-
tue; unmerited happiness is not a good. Thus both
virtue and the good have been brought into defining
relation with obligation.

Kant's moral theory, in effect, provides a method
for generating or testing moral rules by universaliza-
tion. It also puts the individual as a rational being in
the very center, recognizing him as of infinite worth:
every man is to be treated as an end, not merely as
a means.

Kant is quite explicit about his aim. He is expounding
a morality that is a priori and alleged to be free from
any empirical taint. It is not the consequences of action
in existence but its rational character which determines
its moral worth. Man stands out from nature and its
processes as utterly unique. But his uniqueness is found
not in aspiration, not in apprehension of beauty, not
in his use of rationality to develop the instruments of
human control and the pursuit of aims. It lies in the
sense of duty.

The Growth of Historical Consciousness and the
Impact of Evolutionary Theory.
Hitherto the search
had been for eternal structures, both for the good and
the right, whether based on conceptions of divinity,
reason, nature, or laws of the human constitution. The
nineteenth century is the age in which a growing
historical consciousness took philosophical shape, and
the theory of evolution gave it sweeping scientific
substance in the understanding of man.


In the first third of the century the commanding
idealist synthesis in the Hegelian philosophy saw all
reality as a dialectical development in which Reason
or the Divine Idea achieves the self-consciousness
which is its freedom. In all his specific analyses, Hegel
combined a profound sense of unity, of pattern, and
of process. All dualisms were seen as phases in the
development of a total plan, all apparently isolated
items as embodying a wider configuration in some
moment of transition, and every present configuration
as a stage in a historical unfolding in which apparent
opposites are transcended into a higher unity. Hence
Hegel's philosophy is the great solvent of traditional
and opposing ethical schools: dichotomies of abstract
reason and individual immediacy, duty and happiness,
inner spirit and outer institutions are put into place
as stages in the growth of consciousness, the unfolding
of freedom, and the development of institutions. The
full realization of ethics is in the objective domain of
society and history in which the good is articulated
in a social system of rights and duties, themselves not
abstract but expressing the organization of social life
unified in the state. If Hegel's own propositions often
seem too schematized in terms of abstract categories,
his theoretical impact was clearly to encourage the
study of morality in terms of cultural pattern and
historical determination.

The theory of evolution had even more far-reaching
consequences on concepts of the right and the good.
Few of the traditional theories were left unscathed.
Most devastating was the impact on the goal-seeking
framework in its teleological form; for its basic concept
of a permanent natural direction of striving as ethically
determinative was thoroughly undermined. Aristotle's
original criteria for the natural had combined invari-
ance or relative invariance of behavior and develop-
ment in each form of life, inherent tendency in the
sense of unlearned or instinctive, supplemented by
what was good for the form of life. These went in
separate directions once the teleological bond was
broken. Invariance now meant simply scientific laws,
not natural law. Inherence or instinctiveness meant
that the trait got built in during past evolutionary
development because of past survival value; it might,
like aggressiveness, be presently disruptive and a source
of anti-moral behavior in a new environment. The
goodness of a type of behavior would now have to be
established on its own in some fresh manner.

Utilitarianism too was affected, but in a more com-
plex way. Its hedonistic emphasis was deepened, yet
at the same time transcended. The presumed fact that
men constantly pursued pleasure would now give
pleasure no special ultimate status, for it had still to
be asked what this signified in the evolutionary process.
But a biological evolutionary understanding of this
significance was readily forthcoming. For example,
pleasure could be seen, in Herbert Spencer's account,
as a sign of activities having health and survival value,
and rules of right, such as demands for sacrifice, could
become intelligible through their long-range survival
effect on the group. Utilitarianism thus found it easier
to make the social transition that had been difficult
in purely individualistic hedonist terms. But the forms
in which pleasure was sought would now take over
importance, and evolutionary mechanisms would en-
able us to understand them and their changes, though
in social and cultural rather than biological terms. Thus
Spencer also traced the changes that took place in
men's conceptions of the good and the right and in
their patterns of virtue as they moved from a milita-
ristic to an industrial society. Evolutionary interest
turned some ethical inquiry into the sociology of ethics
and into descriptions of primitive and early moralities,
in order to discover an evolution within morality itself.

This general historical emphasis, like the older use
of the Newtonian model, sought to find what had
emerged in order to establish at the same time a basis
of critique for alternative trends and possibilities. In
such endeavors, both the underlying scientific presup-
positions and the underlying ethical commitments
often stood out clearly. Spencer saw the evolutionary
process in terms of the struggle for existence and sur-
vival of the fittest, and posited an individualistic ethics
with absolute conceptions of justice whose emergence
he anticipated as the outcome of social development.
Anarchist ethics, by contrast, best illustrated in the
work of Kropotkin, saw mutual aid as a dominant
theme, frustrated by the development of power-
wielding institutions, and eventually breaking through
to fresh forms of human relationship. Nietzsche posited
a basic psychology of a will to power whose direct
and disciplined expression constituted the obvious
human good. With deep insight into the natural history
of morals, and into its psychological roots, Nietzsche
focused on understanding the role of moral categories
as well as moral content in the psychological function-
ing of men. He saw most of traditional religious and
humanistic morality as an expression of weakness, and
the concepts of evil and sin and injustice to be rooted
in envy and resentment. As against this morality of
good and evil, he posed the aristocratic morality of
good and bad, with its direct expression of power, and
he looked to the production of a higher order of man.

Marxian ethics made perhaps the most systematic
attempt to combine the historical sweep of Hegelian
philosophy with the scientific materialism of an evolu-
tionary outlook, adding also elements of the growing
economic science and historical analysis of social


movements. The growth of freedom is seen as the basic
human aim, interpreted as the increase of productive
power and control of man's career and destiny. Specific
stages are delineated with reference to the historical
interplay of regulative forms in society, reflecting the
stages of economic development and their internal
conflicts. The good is defined in time and place by the
dominant goals of the society, and evaluated by the
advance in human freedom that is ensured; the right
is defined by the system of economic and social rela-
tions, reflecting the underlying economic needs and
mode of production. Thus feudal morality is a system
of ordered position, with virtues of loyalty and grati-
tude; bourgeois morality has goods of individual success
and a system of justice embodying will-assertion, prop-
erty rights, and free contract; socialist and communist
morality will have an ideal of human development and
collective organization. Evaluation is the progressive
reckoning of direction of development in the line of
basic historical aims.

While all these historically-oriented theories sought
to share or to develop the evolutionary framework,
other moral philosophies set out to build up lines of
defense against the growing naturalism. Thus the
Kantian ethical theory was revived and invoked as a
foundation for theories that would stem the scientific
tide and set off spirit from nature. Kant himself had
consciously held on to the two irreducible worlds of
noumena and phenomena, the former for morality, the
latter for science. And T. H. Green, witnessing the
evolutionary naturalization of man, warned that unless
morality somehow represented something transcend-
ent, the moral consciousness would be reduced to sim-
ply a complex form of fear. Whether the idealist out-
looks that emerged built on the Kantian contrast of
nature and spirit or on the Hegelian concept of all
reality as the march of Spirit, the net effect was to
establish the moral consciousness as a cosmic phenom-
enon. Desire itself became no isolated impulse but a
movement of the self, threading its way to a systematic
realization in relation to the whole.

The ethics of self-realization, for example, as pro-
pounded by F. H. Bradley in his Ethical Studies (1876),
had no need to counterpose the juridical and the goal-
seeking frameworks. Like the ancient Stoic ethics of
virtue, it was operating in the framework of a distinct
self-development model, and Hegel had already broken
down all the sharp dichotomies. It was, however, the
Hegelian emphasis on the comprehensive and total
system, rather than his dynamic historicism, that domi-
nated in self-realizationist theory. Goals could appear
in human consciousness, but their significance lay in
the systematic unity they gave to self-development;
and rules could govern human action, but their basic
meaning lay in the institutional structures of the time
and place that gave content to the integration of the
self. Integration in the self and organization in society
were carrying on the kind of function that went with
right or obligation; the growing concrete whole of
self-realization would merit the appellation of the

The aftermath of evolution, with its recognition of
variety of form and constant change and with its re-
moval from the scene of a determinate and definitive
plan for all time, made impossible thereafter the older
forms of both the goal-seeking and the juridical frame-
work. Looking back, we can detect precursor tenden-
cies toward the new in both Bentham and Kant.
Bentham's notion of pleasure as the goal had been so
broad and so thin as to determine no definitive goal
but to shift the emphasis to evaluation in measurement.
Kant's use of rationality as self-legislation had begun
to shift the emphasis from the set of rules to the way
of certifying them. With the change in cognitive ori-
entation brought by the century of evolution, the char-
acteristic ethical element in both frameworks could
only be the critical component which made evaluation
possible or which gave a rational character to decision.
In the twentieth century it took many forms, including
belated Platonic reifications of value or value domains,
and belated Kantian forms of extracting basic princi-
ples from the concept of rationality. It took explicit
form in outlooks that made the phenomenon of criti-
cism or of reflective decision the central focus in ethics.
It took bold experimental form in the foundation of
general value theory in which a unified concept of what
is called value took over from that of the good and
by developing a theory of value judgment compre-
hending the critical element, left little for an inde-
pendent notion of right to do except be the application
of value judgment to a particular province of value.

In turning to these predominantly twentieth-century
vicissitudes of the right and the good, the experiment
with value merits consideration in terms of its basic
intent and procedures. The other forms can be sur-
veyed under the rubric of analytic formulations, and
naturalistic and pragmatic formulations.

The Right and The Good in General Value Theory.
The general theory of value appears to have arisen
from different sources, at points with opposing motives.
The earliest modern source was the Benthamite em-
phasis on measurement. For Bentham, value is, like
price in economics, the measure of a consignment of
pleasure or pain entering into decision. The theoretical
importance of this evaluative phenomenon was noted
above. It also had practical support in the existence
of a money economy in which things and services of
extremely diverse type and “use value” in consump-


tion, acquire a comparative “exchange value.” Eco-
nomic analysis of exchange value furnished the earliest
comprehensive model for a general theory of value.
It both provided concepts and inspired hopes of a
systematic account of human choices and preferences
in all fields.

A second source was the naturalistic continuation
of Hobbes' or Spinoza's account of good as the object
of endeavor, now seen in an evolutionary light. Generic
value would be the earliest or most rudimentary
response—the elective act of acceptance or rejection,
the exhibition of an interest, a pro- or con- attitude.
While some theorists reached such a broad base simply
by throwing all different forms into a common hopper
and postulating a value genus for the variety of value
species, others had clearly in mind the evolutionary
sketch of rising complexity on different integrative
levels beginning with an originally simple reaction. The
explanatory derivation of the complex would show how
the differentiated notions such as the right or the sense
of obligation arose out of the ordinary materials of
human sympathy in the reactions of men in groups
held together for survival. It was the functions they
performed in harmonizing or marshalling or integrat-
ing interests that kept them going. Darwin had himself
led the way by attacking the exaggeration of remorse
into some supernatural voice. It was, he said, just
different in degree from ordinary repentance, as agony
differed from pain or rage from anger.

Precisely the opposite motive operated in the idealist
generalization of value. For it the drawing together
of different kinds of categories into a single basic notion
of value was the sign of the characteristic mark of
spirit. The glimmer of the ideal now operative in bare
desire or selection, now in deliberate obligation, repre-
sented the same basic phenomenon.

Phenomenological approaches have sometimes gone
even farther than idealist philosophy in isolating a
separate domain of value. For example, Nicolai
Hartmann, in his Ethics, contrasts sharply the sensory
domain which science explores, the ontological domain
which includes both the religious and the general
metaphysical accounts of reality, and the axiological
or value domain which is self-sufficient and inde-
pendent, grasped by sensitive insight or intuition. It
has its own laws and its own structure. Ethics consists
in an exploration of the different values in this domain—
what ought to be, whether it exists or not, in all its
rich variety and often with conflicting possibilities. This
is the realm of the traditional good, broadly conceived
by the theory of value. Duty is the application and
selection under given conditions of the structure of
existence. It is, for Hartmann, a fundamental philo-
sophical mistake to argue that the structure of reality
determines value—for example, a religious teleology
in which God's will is therefore good. Hartmann attacks
Plato too for identifying the good and the real. Value
is the independent base for evaluating even the
ultimately real.

The relation of the right and the good in this new
framework of general value theory has shown, how-
ever, a variety comparable to that in the older tradi-
tion. At first sight, the value concept itself seems to
be wholly on the side of the good. The general ques-
tions asked are all of one type: the nature of the value
phenomenon, the meaning of “value,” the mode of
verifying value judgments, the mode of comparing
values. Yet as its very breadth carries it beyond the
moral domain to include aesthetic value, religious
value, economic value, and so on, some distinctive
mark is then required for the more limited province
of the moral. Sometimes this has been taken to be the
values of character, in the older tradition of virtue,
but perhaps more often there has been a reference to
the values that ought to be brought into existence under
given conditions. The ought thus becomes the distinc-
tive mark of the moral. Similarly, where value is
identified in terms of interest or desire or inclination,
the additional selective element, as in the contrast of
the desired and the desirable, carries the connotation
of what is worth desiring or ought to be desired. Some-
times the concept of the normative is used for the
selective or critical element; sometimes, however, the
term “norm” becomes rather descriptive of some pat-
tern of interest or desire, and “value” then carries the
connotation of the standard or the desirable. In
Hartmann's account, the tension of the ought is carried
into the heart of the good by construing value itself
as an ought-to-be. Similarly, in a quite different kind
of phenomenological approach—extending to value the
methods that Gestalt psychology found fruitful in the
study of perception—Wolfgang Köhler attempts to
identify a phenomenal quality of requiredness as a
generic element and interprets both aesthetic and
moral fittingness as special cases of it.

Whatever these skirmishes in the dialectic of no-
menclature, it is clear in general value theory that the
concepts represent rather functional differentiation in
the one material. The critical element lies in the com-
parative evaluation, and the question what one ought
to do or what is appropriate is readily translated into
what is the best thing to do. The contrast of the right
and good has lost its basic importance in general value
theory. Attention has shifted rather to the whole prob-
lem of the autonomy of the value domain, which,
interestingly enough, is indifferently termed the ques-
tion of the relation between the ought and the is, and
that between fact and value, as if they were the same

In more recent study of the language of morals, the


old sharper distinction reappears within the new
framework. A contrast is made between evaluation and
prescription, and the older problems of the relation
between the good and the right appear in the form
of the relation between value and obligation, once
again as major differences in categories.

Analytic Formulations. Philosophical analysis, es-
pecially in its British twentieth-century forms, has been
applied in various ways to problems of ethical theory.
G. E. Moore's Principia Ethica (1903), with its
common-sense analysis, reached a position in many
respects analogous to the phenomenological one. The
autonomy of the moral is central to his account. The
basic predicate of morals is “good” in the sense of
intrinsic good. This names a simple quality which
cannot be identified with any descriptive predicate,
whether psychological, such as pleasure or what one
desires; or metaphysical, such as what God wills; or
historical, such as what evolution unfolds. To identify
good with any of these “natural” qualities or predicates
is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Moore's chief
demonstration of its fallaciousness is the so-called
open-question argument—that if you identify good
with such a descriptive content it is always possible
meaningfully to ask of this content whether it itself
is good. Thus to ask if what God wills is good, or if
pleasure is good, is not to ask a meaningless question
or to affirm that pleasure is pleasure. Though Moore
regards this as establishing the simple nonnatural char-
acter of good, and a domain of values intuitively
grasped as having a worth independent of whatever
the actual state of existence may be, it is more plausible
to see his argument as establishing the permanent
possibility of critical evaluation for any proposed con-

With respect to right and obligation, Moore's answer
is utilitarian in form. To judge an act as right is to
say that it will cause the world to be better than it
would be on any possible alternative act.

Contrasting relations of the right and the good were
proposed by Moore's contemporaries at Oxford, who
also employed the method of the conceptual analysis
of ordinary moral beliefs or convictions. H. A. Prichard
reversed Moore's relation. The particular judgments of
obligation are the primary material; we know directly
in the particular case what our obligations are, and
we generalize them in rough rules. The notion of good
is derivative: a good man is a man who does what is
right, and the good consists in those goals that a good
man pursues. On the other hand, Sir David Ross took
the strikingly different path of analyzing the right and
the good as coordinate independent ideas. Our duty
in a particular case is hard to work out, but the prima
rules which tell us that lying and stealing and
so on are wrong are themselves intuitively evident.
That something is good, or even yields the greatest
good, does not mean that it is our duty to do it; we
may be bound by a stringent duty such as a promise
to a man on his death bed to carry out his wishes, but
acting in accordance with his wishes may not yield
the greatest good we could disinterestedly conceive.
Ross's common-sense analysis reflects quite accurately
the conflicts between duty and interest in ordinary life.
It simply acknowledges the tension of the right and
the good, or of justice and utility, or of duty and
interest, by whatever names distinguished, and takes
for granted that the good is what has to be sacrificed
in cases of tension.

While these contrasting patterns each claimed to be
the correct analysis of ordinary moral concepts and
convictions, it is apparent that they also establish defi-
nite priorities in policy and conduct. To define the right
in terms of the good involves a readiness to evaluate
moral rules critically in terms of the welfare they bring
or frustrate in practice. The separation of the right
and the good or the primacy of the right has the more
conservative potential in giving priority to maintaining
the stability of the existing moral pattern.

Analytic formulations moved in two somewhat
different directions in the mid-twentieth century. One
was toward more formal logical analysis, the other to
more informal contextual linguistic analysis.

The formal analysis was prompted by the rapid
development of logical techniques as well as the pres-
tige which logical positivism attached to formal con-
struction, while disparaging ordinary language as
enshrining the mistakes and myths of the past. The
most prominent work relevant to ethics has stemmed
from the field of deontic logic, in which such concepts
as permissible, imperative, ought, and others of the
same group of right and obligation are analyzed and
systematized in logical fashion. Thus if “permissible”
is taken as a primitive term, “X is obligatory” would
be translated into “It is not permissible not to do X.”
Differences between the operations and trans-
formations permitted in the ordinary propositional
calculus and those in the deontic system are carefully
explored. This is a rapidly growing field of analysis
today. While the right was first dealt with, recent work
has turned also to the good, and axiological systems
have been developed using “better” as a primitive
term. The question of interpretation of such systems,
and of the ways of establishing or verifying statements
in these systems, would raise afresh all the problems
of the right and the good. At present it is the logical
commplexities that stimulate interest.

The positivist analysis of meaning and verification
also had a different impact on ethical theory. Since
the meaning of a term was taken to lie in the mode
of verification implied, and truth was established


either by showing a logical proposition to be analyti-
cally true or an empirical proposition to predict cor-
rectly the course of sense-experience, there seemed no
place left for the ethical propositions of the intuitionist
approach, any more than for propositions of religion
or aesthetics. All these were accordingly denied any
cognitive status; they do not assert anything, but ethical
terms rather serve a noncognitive or practical function,
providing vehicles for expressing or giving vent to
emotions. To say “Stealing is wrong,” argued A. J. Ayer
in his Language, Truth and Logic (1936), is equivalent
to saying “Stealing!!” in a tone of horror. The differ-
ence between “good” and “right” or between any
ethical terms, lies in the kind and strength of the
emotion conveyed. Ethical statements are therefore
neither true nor false. In a development of the emotive
theory, C. L. Stevenson focused on disagreement in
attitude, as distinguished from disagreement in belief,
as the central moral phenomenon, and analyzed ethical
statements as largely persuasive in effort—practical
attempts to bring about agreement in an emotive way.
To resolve an ethical issue is thus causally to secure
agreement in attitude, not cognitively to establish a

The distinctive feature of the emotive theory was
not the recognition of the role of emotion in ethics;
this had been a commonplace of the eighteenth-century
theorists who stressed the moral sentiments as against
the Cambridge Platonists who had looked for intellec-
tual ethical axioms. And Westermarck, in his Ethical
(1932), had recently expounded the view
that ethical beliefs were generalizations of the retribu-
tive feelings, with “wrong” and “bad” resting on the
sterner retaliatory feelings, and “right” and “good” on
the kindlier retributive feelings of gratitude. The dis-
tinctive element was the tie-in with the presumed
correct use of language, and the claim that indicative
forms in “X is good” or “X is wrong” are incorrect
syntactical expressions whose proper form would be
“Would that everybody desired X” as Russell at one
point analyzed “good,” and “Don't do X,” as Carnap
translated moral rules into imperatives. Some, such as
Reichenbach, stressed the more voluntaristic element,
the commitment component in the will-act, in ethical

The contextual mode of analysis as a systematic
procedure in ethics emerged from such antecedents
under the impact of the revised conception of meaning
that followed upon Ludwig Wittgenstein's later work.
A term was to be understood not by seeking a single
definition expressive of its essence, but by examining
linguistic uses, by seeing carefully how one might come
to learn the use of the term. No one form of unity
was antecedently presupposed; there might be an ulti
mate plurality, or a loose unity in a kind of family
resemblance. In a reverse of the positivist attitude to
ordinary language as a blundering to be superseded
by careful formalization, the new mode of analysis
showed the greatest respect for ordinary language as
a repository of the wisdom and experience of the ages
in communication and interpersonal relations. Accord-
ingly, in ethics, it canvassed the field of the uses of
moral terms and turned up a multitude of differences,
as far apart as expressing feelings and preferences,
expressing decisions, advising, persuading, evaluating
and promulgating. R. M. Hare concentrated on the
commending use of “good,” and the use of “ought”
to indicate the need for a decision. J. L. Austin explored
the performatory uses of language, and in morals the
actual assignment of obligation and responsibilities,
J. O. Urmson the grading uses of “good.” By the time
that G. H. von Wright explored the variety of uses
in his Varieties of Goodness (1963), it was a mark of
lack of philosophical sophistication to ask for “the
meaning of 'good.'”

Contextualism probed even more minutely into con-
text differences. Thus the differentiation in personal
pronoun with “ought” was found to make a difference
in use; for example, “I ought” was sometimes declared
to express a decision, “You ought” to be prescriptive
as addressed to someone in particular, “He ought” to
be evaluative. Thus the kind of term became less im-
portant than the kind of function being performed. But
even evaluation differed (as Toulmin showed in his The
Place of Reason in Ethics,
1950) as one was looking
for the application of a rule in a particular case, ques-
tioning a rule within a moral code, and questioning
a limiting principle in terms of which codes were
themselves adjudged.

The relation of the right and the good underwent
changes in these developments. At first the distinction
was between dentological terms and teleological terms,
and the question of their relation was expressed as
whether deontological statements presupposed teleo-
logical statements—that is, whether ought-assertions
were meaningful only if you assumed certain purposes
in the background. In the language of functions, re-
placing that of statements, the question was the rela-
tion of prescribing to evaluating. With the multi-
plication of contexts and functions it became less a
question of assigning a usage to one or another function
than of exploring the concrete structure of each func-
tion, whatever language it employed. In effect, all the
functions could be seen as contextually differentiated
modes of reflective criticism.

Naturalistic and Pragmatic Formulations. While
the analytic formulations began with language and
worked out towards the contexts and functions which


characterized moral phenomena and moral processes,
the naturalistic formulations went as directly as possi-
ble to the latter in order to explore them in as scientific
a spirit as possible. Utilitarianism had done this by
identifying the good as pleasure, studying pleasure with
respect to qualities, conditions of occurrence, modes
of increasing, and so on, although in a limited intro-
spective way. The good and the right were then related
as pleasure and the avoidance of pain to the stable
rules of their successful pursuit.

The differences among the naturalistic formulations,
especially with the emergence of general value theory,
tended to follow the different assumptions about the
most fruitful scientific study. R. B. Perry, in his General
Theory of Value
(1926), identified value as object of
interest rather than pleasure, apparently because in-
terest has a broader biological import and can be
exhibited in behavioral terms. Thus where Bentham
called intensity a measure of value, Perry spoke of the
degree of arousal of the organism. The function of the
right was broadly carried out by measures of the
maximal achievement of interest, with such criteria as
intensity, preference and inclusiveness, and with
specific exploration of different levels of integration
of interest. In the narrow sense, judgments of right and
wrong indicated the application of such criteria in
rule-formation within groups for group interests. By
contrast to Perry's approach, Stephen Pepper, in his
Sources of Value (1958), focused on the phenomenon
of appetition and purposive striving. Regarding it as
basic, Pepper maintained that the aspects of pleasure
or satisfaction generally, as well as those of interest
and direction, can be set within a framework of pur-
pose. The structure of such appetition is generalized
into a theory of value as a whole, and the concepts
of the good and the right find their place in the goals
and the modes of organization within that structure.

Pepper's formulation consciously set out from E. C.
Tolman's behaviorist studies (Purposive Behavior in
Animals and Men
). In corresponding fashion, other
kinds of psychological inquiry are associated with other
kinds of naturalistic ethical theory. The psychoanalytic
approach exerted wide influence in the mid-twentieth
century. The Freudian picture of the basic instinctual
tendencies operating on the pleasure principle, re-
strained and channeled by the ego operating on the
reality principle to postpone gratification, and by the
superego with its internalized parental prohibitions,
furnished a model into which ethics could readily be
fitted. Moral rules of right and wrong were often inter-
preted as superego phenomena, basically addressed to
problems of acquisitiveness, aggression, and sexuality.
Ideals and aspirations constituting the good rested on
ego-formation or on ego-superego relations. A great
part of the ethical theory that made use of psychoan-
alytic knowledge concerned itself with character and
virtue, falling into a self-development framework
rather than the goal-seeking or the juridical. But the
psychoanalytic exploration of conscience and guilt and
shame formations did affect deeply the theory of duty,
and the probing into phenomena of pleasure and its
sources, and phenomena of aspiration, contributed
greater depth to the understanding of the good.

For the most part, the utilitarian and naturalistic
theories have inherited the older goal-seeking frame-
work with its picture of the unified goal broken up
by evolutionary theory, by depth psychology, and by
social science and its study of historical goals and their
patterning. In the pragmatic formulations, akin to the
naturalistic in their close relation to the sciences, but
more directly incorporating the psychological study of
knowledge processes, the focus is more sharply on the
critical processes of evaluation and formation of rules.
In William James's Psychology (1890) and in Dewey's
reformulation of it, experience is not the passive
lining-up of sensory building-blocks; it is the active
attention and selection in the stream of consciousness
or the flux of events, guided by the existent state and
purposes of the organism, which creates signals and
stimuli out of what is going on, and guides awareness
and response. Categories, and ideas generally, are in-
struments for organizing one's activity and for resolv-
ing problems that arise. The body of ideas and habits
which characterize the self at any time is therefore
constantly undergoing change or is open to change in
response to the growth of experience. The process is
through and through an interactive one.

The psychological exploration is initially grounded
in James's great work. The logical analysis of knowl-
edge, so as to extend the analysis of action to it, is
carried out with the greatest technical refinement by
C. I. Lewis. The general philosophical picture in ap-
plication to a whole range of fields is most evident in
the instrumentalism of John Dewey. Lewis and Dewey
especially stress the unified character of knowledge as
against those who, like the emotivists, reject scientific
method in ethics.

James's treatment of the good and the right does
not go much beyond the general naturalistic concept
of the integration of men's wishes and desires, or where
it does it is to stress the creative frontier element in
willing. Lewis analyzes good or value as one kind of
empirical knowledge, where satisfactions disclosed in
experience serve as the experiential base. But such
judgments, though necessary, are not sufficient to de-
termine what is right to do, since some critique or
principle is needed to rank and systematize
goods—one's own as well as the relation of one's own


good with that of others. What is distinctive about
Lewis' analysis is that such a critique, imperative or
prescriptive, appears not only to guide action but in
the construction of all knowledge.

These rational imperatives, thus presupposed in the
enterprises of science and morality, are basically four,
each of which is presupposed in the succeeding ones.
The first two are the rules of consistency and cogency,
establishing logic and the methods of evidence as com-
pelling. The third is the rule of prudence, according
to which a man reckons his well-being in terms of his
whole life rather than in momentary or fragmentary
impulse. The fourth is the rule of justice, expressing
the phenomena of sociality and social grouping.

Dewey goes beyond reliance on the general charac-
ter of human psychology and the knowledge process
to the results of the specific sciences and the history
of man. The general background of his approach is
the acceptance on evolutionary and historical grounds
of increasingly rapid change in human life. Hence fixity
in goals, in rules, in specific forms of relevant character,
in specific patterns of self-social relations and in re-
sponsibility, is not to be expected. Given such change,
the basic need is for direction and guidance of change.
Intelligence is a general name for man's increasingly
stabilized method of evaluation. Accordingly, Dewey
refashions the initial picture of a moral situation and
the role of concepts of good and right. A moral situa-
tion is not primarily one in which moral principles
struggle with inclination; it is rather one in which there
is a problem or conflict of principles so that a decision
is necessary. Ethics embodies the lessons of reflective
experience as an aid to such decision.

Good refers, then, not to a set of ends, although its
base of phenomena is the purposive activity of men,
but to a mode of evaluating ends, that is, to the devel-
opment of a standard. The traditional sharp distinction
of means and ends is also reassessed. In effect, Dewey
is developing fresh categories for dealing with the
good, in the light of the psychological processes of
purposive activity. Ends are ends-in-view, targets that
are set up so that aiming at them will resolve the
problems in the situation. Similarly, desire is not mere
liking, but arises in a matrix in which to pursue the
object of desire will satisfy needs, harmonize habit
conflicts, and so on. Hence ends are constantly open
to evaluation in terms of consequences met in their

Judgments of right, duty, and rights arise in the
context of claims that are a constant feature of group
life. Guidance by rule, or principles, is thus unavoid-
able. It is this distinctive context which underlies the
claim that the right is separate from the good. Dewey,
consciously facing the traditional issue of the relation
of the right and the good, and the attempts to reduce
one to the other, decides that the categorial distinction
is supported by the basic difference in the phenomena
of desire and aspiration on the one hand, and inter-
personal claims within the group on the other. But it
does not follow that there are other standards than that
of the good for deciding between alternative rules or
principles of right. Hence Dewey's solution, in his and
James H. Tufts' major work on Ethics (rev. ed., 1932),
is the distinction of the concepts, but insistence on
evaluation of what is right by what promotes the good.
In his later Theory of Valuation (1939), however, the
concern with right and wrong recedes, and Dewey
deals rather with the way criteria for evaluation in all
fields rise and operate as standards and principles. The
emphasis throughout remains on the theory of reflec-
tive criticism.

Moral Autonomy and the Theory of Criticism. It
is this emphasis on the theory of criticism in morality,
most clearly presented in the pragmatist formulation,
but implicit in most twentieth-century ethics, that
emerges as the distinctive mark of moral autonomy.
Its basis in the history of ideas was the unsettling of
all fixities in the development of evolutionary concep-
tions. Its sociological base in the twentieth century is
the complexity, rapidity of change, and conflicts, aris-
ing in all institutions and segments of human life; the
collective effect is an increase in the need for decision,
and the importance of comprehensive standards as
contrasted with the rules of specific fields. Even in the
ethical formulations that set up a separate domain of
value and took autonomy to lie in independence from
existence, this independence when it functions becomes
in effect the right of moral criticism of anything and
everything. Thus moral autonomy becomes less the
traditional emphasis on Kantian formulation of laws,
or the emphasis on the isolation of ethics from the
sciences and human knowledge generally; rather it
maintains the integrity of moral decision as a critical
process. Ethical theory becomes thus the theory of the
way in which human knowledge can be used by men
who become conscious of their human aims—both
perennial and historically local—to criticize the direc-
tion of their striving and to reorient it on the basis
of the evidence. In such a conception, both the right
and the good become retranslated into phases of the
critical process.


References to individual moral philosophers through the
nineteenth century and their works may be found in Henry
Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics, 5th ed. (London,
1902), or in a comprehensive general history of philosophy,
such as A History of Philosophy, 3rd ed., by B. A. G. Fuller,


revised by Sterling M. McMurrin (New York, 1955). See also
Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (London, 1967).

Twentieth-century conceptions of the right and the good
are found in the various schools or movements. For a study
of general value theory that looks back historically, see John
Laird, The Idea of Value (Cambridge, 1929). For phenom-
enological approaches to value: Nicolai Hartmann, Ethics,
trans. Stanton Coit (London, 1932), and Wolfgang Köhler,
The Place of Value in a World of Facts (New York, 1938).
For naturalistic value theory: Ralph Barton Perry, General
Theory of Value
(New York, 1926) and Realms of Value
(Cambridge, Mass., 1958); Stephen C. Pepper, The Sources
of Value
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1958). For analytic
formulations in the first part of the century: G. E. Moore,
Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1903); H. A. Prichard, Moral
(Oxford, 1949); W. D. Ross, The Right and The
(Oxford, 1930). For emotive theory: Charles L.
Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New Haven, 1944). For
ordinary language analysis: P. H. Nowell-Smith, Ethics
(London, 1954). For formal approaches in deontic and
axiological systems: G. H. von Wright, Norm and Action
(London, 1963) and The Logic of Preference (London, 1963);
see also his general analytic study, The Varieties of Goodness
(London, 1963). For pragmatic approaches: C. I. Lewis, An
Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation
(LaSalle, Ill., 1946),
Part III, and The Ground and Nature of the Right (New
York, 1955); John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics, rev.
ed. (New York, 1932) and John Dewey, Theory of Valuation
(Chicago, 1939).


[See also Evil; Evolutionism; Happiness and Pleasure;
Hegelian...; Justice; Nature; Platonism; Pragmatism;
Socialism; Utilitarianism.]