The Relativity of the Moral Judgment
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[ 197 The Relativity of the Moral Judgment At the end of the Hilary term in 1915, Eliot read “The Relativity of the Moral Judgment” at a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club held on 12 Mar in Russell’s rooms at Cambridge. The attempt to defend a naturalistic or biological attitude in ethics exposes one, I am well aware, to an attack from two quarters: from those who adopt a thoroughgoing rationalism, and from those who seek for truth in the immediate revelations of intuition.1 Indeed I hesitate for another reason to take the name of naturalism; the reason [being] that I do not wish to league myself with those who find in biological utility the criterion for all moral value. I do not assert that value is mere feeling, and I do not deny that we can and do reason about our actions within certain limits. Let me consequently ask you to consider the view which I am about to propose as an idealism à rebours,2 and to consider its materialistic tone as a difference only of emphasis. Historically, too, the differences between materialism and idealism come to little more than this. Yet, although while the primogeniture in the case will always remain in doubt, an impartial observer, inspecting the philosophical activities of the last several generations, is impelled to remark that one has been robbed, beaten, and dispossessed, while the other has flourished in the emoluments and appanages of his brother. The coat of materialism , turned and trimmed, has adorned the back of idealism of a Sunday; and materialism has had to shuffle about in a few gaudy trinkets of very doubtful value bestowed upon him by the natural sciences. However, idealism , having sold his mess of pottage for a birth-right, is perhaps beginning to show signs of inanition; and it is possible too that materialism, toughened by an age of lusty beggary, will fall upon his brother and leave him naked. With one coat and two backs, it seems there is nothing for it but turn and turn about.3 The task of philosophy, it appears to me, is largely one of simplification: to disentangle the riddling oracles of the world, to paragraph and punctuate them and insert the emphases; a work of great but certainly of only relative value, our pride in which must ever be corrected by the reflection that what is explained outlasts any of its explanations; explanations which it generates, 1914-15: Merton College, Oxford University 198 ] sustains, and to which it allows that scant measure of validity which they possess. Hence, an inevitable inadequacy in one direction or another: to reduce the world to a set of formulae is to let it slip through our fingers in a fine dust; but to fly into an emotional orgy or retire into a sunlit stupor is to let the world slip through our fingers in a thin smoke. Between the two extremes is found the subject-matter of conversation, upon which intelligence feeds. Philosophy, as I apprehend it, is a hybrid compound of the three, science, orgy, and conversation; though I fear that we are apt to overlook the third in the violence of our rushes from pole to pole. Every philosophy compounds them in its own proportions. Much of idealism, which is the philosophy of the historically minded, consists in an attempt to take the delicate and evasive truths of historical and literary criticism, truths which are the intuitive apprehension of a trained mind and a trained taste, and dragoon them into the goose-step of dialectic; while on the other hand, the more tough-minded philosopher sometimes presents the aspect of an elderly German mathematician learning to dance.4 But there are all sorts of ways of setting the world in order; from the relative precision of physics to the relative confusion of theology; and if, as I concede to idealism , each science manufactures its own objects, yet metaphysics is at liberty to manufacture its own objects too. As a relativist (to use Dr. Wiener’s word),5 I am not in a position even to desire to refute anybody; all that I have the desire and the right to attempt, is to indicate what seems to me the sensible, or honnête view. The difference, then, between the view which I urge and idealism is that while the idealist, on ascending into heaven, pulls his ladder up after him, I prefer to return to lay my head upon a...