Objective Idealism and Ethics
(Author’s note: This essay was written some ten years ago and may not reflect my current views in every detail although it does still represent the general tenor of my thought.)
In this essay I want to present a somewhat informal introduction to what I take to be the essential doctrine of idealistic ethics. It is the view that there is a single real will that incorporates all of our apparently individual wills, and that there is therefore a single overarching common end in which all of our obligations against one another are grounded.
This doctrine has gone by various names: the general will, social will, the real will, the rational will. It has an interesting and somewhat checkered history. Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave the first modern exposition of it in The Social Contract, but his account of it was notoriously bad. Thomas Hill Green gave a much more satisfactory presentation of it in his Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation; Bernard Bosanquet did likewise in The Philosophical Theory of the State and elsewhere, calling it the “real will”; Brand Blanshard gave a modified account in Reason and Goodness, suggesting “rational will” as his preferred term. I’ll adopt that term in this essay as well.
There have been objections to the doctrine too, and I’ll have more to say about them when I write my essay on idealism and politics. For now, it’s enough to say the following: the political objection is not to the “rational will” itself but to the claim that any particular person or institution is in a position to represent that “will.” On the view of Austrian economics, no one is in such a privileged position even with regard to exchangeable goods; the only full expression of that “will” is the market process itself, which indeed always falls short of its ideal end but does not permit any “shortcuts” based on allegedly privileged vantage points. (For example, some of L.T. Hobhouse’s criticisms in The Metaphysical Theory of the State are well-founded. But none of them require us to do away with the general/real will itself; cf. Blanshard’s discussion of this point in Reason and Goodness.)
This objection is founded, at bottom, on the view that there’s something presumptuous in the claim that each of us has a “will” that goes beyond our immediate wants, desires, and interests — beyond, in short, what we ordinarily mean by our “will.” In fact, though, we can easily see, with a bit of reflection, that what we actually want at any particular moment does not even begin to exhaust what we “really” want.
Rather than present arguments to this effect, though, I’d prefer just to make vividly real the actuality on which the doctrine is based. Bosanquet writes that one of his contemporaries
had been greatly helped in understanding my social and political philosophy by having paid a visit to my old home on a large Northumbrian farm. It is a place where for several generations there has reigned a practice of business efficiency together with a spirit of cordial co-operation and neighbourly kindness. . . . After such a habituation the doctrine of the real social will, for example, comes to one as the recognition of an obvious and solid fact . . . . [T]he secret is after all in the main an open secret — the concrete unity of life as it is lived, overriding abstractions like bare pleasure or duty, for example, or like the meaningless opposition of mere egoism and altruism. [“Life and Philosophy,” pp. 52-53; in Contemporary British Philosophy, J.H. Muirhead, ed.]
Anyone who has spent time in any sort of cooperative enterprise will have a sense of what Bosanquet is talking about here. We have probably all had some experience of a common, overarching actual will in which our own individual wills cohere and from which they take some of their character.
The idealist claim is that, ultimately, we have a single common end in which our obligations against one another are based, being grounded in an actual will that coherently includes not merely what you and I want but what we would ideally want (all things considered). But how can our end be literally common? This claim depends on the existence of real universals, their instantiation in thought, and the view of Royce and (the early) Blanshard that an idea, if fully developed, would be its object. I discuss these issues at greater length in Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality; here I want to elaborate a bit on a point that will make the existence of a common end intuitively plausible.
Both Royce and Blanshard argued that thought seeks in some way to become its object — that an idea, if fully developed, would just be its object. The later Blanshard found this suggestion less plausible with respect to physical objects, but that need not detain us here; one of the contexts in which it is most plausible is in the special case of persons and desires.
Another of my favorite writers on ethics, Timothy L.S. Sprigge, has noted in The Rational Foundations of Ethics that Royce once made a highly pregnant suggestion (in Religious Aspects of Philosophy): that whenever we enter into, and understand, the desire of another person, a little “copy” of that desire becomes part of us. We can’t, that is, understand someone else’s desire without literally coming to share it ourselves. Perhaps more extremely, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in a related discussion in An Idealist View of Life, quoted D.G. Ritchie to the effect that if I fully understood another person, I would literally be that person. (Readers of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land will be aware that the Martian word for this level of understanding is “grok.”)
On such a view, when I genuinely understand your desire/interest/goal, it is literally present “in” me (or at least my thought is in the process of becoming identical with it). We “overlap”; we’re part of a single overarching reality. However we decide to characterize this reality, my point here is simply that it exists — and that our common ethical end is “located” in it.
(In later life, Blanshard remarked — somewhere in Reason and Belief, but I don’t have the precise reference at hand — that, with respect to our subjective experience, each of us is an island. Such remarks probably explain why David Boucher and Andrew Vincent write that “Brand Blanchard [sic] . . . leaned more towards Personal Idealism” [British Idealism and Political Theory, p. 15]. At any rate, I disagree with Blanshard on this point and even think his suggestion is inconsistent with his own belief in real universals.)
There is another difficulty in characterizing this end, one that has led to some severe criticisms of idealist ethics. It is the question whether “right” simply reduces to “good.”
Blanshard and Sprigge, each in his way, have held that “right” does just reduce to the production of good. In this sense, Sprigge says, ethics is broadly “utilitarian.”
But this view was roundly criticized by Sir William David Ross in The Right and the Good and The Foundations of Ethics. In each of these works, Ross claimed that “right” does not reduce to the production of good, that we may sometimes be obliged to perform a “right” act even though this act does not produce any more “good” (and may even produce less) than its alternatives. (Ross also levelled another criticism that will be important shortly: on the idealist view, knowledge that falls short of the “whole” shouldn’t be knowledge at all, and yet, Ross the ethical intuitionist maintained, we do have rational insight into our obligations that really deserves to be called knowledge.)
Ross’s claim — that we may be obliged to perform an act even when it produces less good than some other act — seemed counterintuitive to Blanshard. In trying to reply to Ross in Reason and Goodness, Blanshard proposed an alternative of his own (derived, I think, from one previously offered by H.W.B. Joseph): he claimed that “right” does reduce to the production of good, and argued that performing a right act is in effect “voting” for an entire way of life with which the act is bound up. In this way, he thought, he could maintain that “right” does indeed reduce to consequences; it’s just that we have to extend the meaning of “consequences” to include logical consequences.
The difficulty with Blanshard’s view is this: one reason the “way of life” seems good is that it includes the practice of promise-keeping. This seems to presume the very point at issue, namely that promise-keeping is “right” in and of itself. (In fact Ross made precisely this argument in The Foundations of Ethics in reply to Joseph; I don’t think Blanshard responded to it effectively.)
My own proposed resolution requires a distinction between the metaphysics and the epistemology of ethics. As an objective idealist, I hold that the existence of a common end is metaphysically necessary as a foundation for our obligations against one another. But I also claim that epistemologically, we know this end only “constructively,” via intuition and reflection. We don’t have direct access to our ideal common end; we have to “come at it” by starting from our ethical intuitions and working forward. This process just is the process (or at least the intellectual side of the process) by which our ideal end realizes itself.
So I think Ross was right that we can have direct intuitive knowledge of good/right, just as we can have direct knowledge that 2+2=4; we don’t need to have knowledge of the “whole” in order to have knowledge of specific ethical “facts.” But Blanshard was also right that this knowledge will develop as we pass to the ideal limit of thought; and our ethical values can be refined and perhaps even altered through reflection.
Moreover, I think Ross was correct that “right” doesn’t reduce to “good”; but I think he made too sharp a separation between “right” and “good” in the first place. On his view, we can’t say that the performance of right acts is good; we can only say it’s right. This seems to be the source of Blanshard’s problem with Ross; we ought to be able to say somehow that a world in which promises are kept is, thus far, more “good” than one in which they are not. And I agree with Blanshard on this point even though I have to disagree somewhat with his own proposed resolution.
The truth seems to be that there is something “intrinsically good” about a state of affairs in which right actions are performed. Ross was right that it is artificial to divorce an “act” from its “consequences,” but for this very reason we cannot expect “right” and “good” to fall completely apart.
The relevance to objective idealism is this: my proposed resolution makes better sense on the metaphysical view that reality consists, ultimately, of some sort of “intentionality” that doesn’t simply split apart into thought and object. If these are intellectual abstractions from a single organic unity, then we can’t expect either “right” or “good” to be metaphysically primary; what is primary is intentionality itself; “right” and “good” are at most two different parts of a spectrum, perhaps merely a difference in emphasis. Ross was correct to argue that an act may be wrong not because of the badness of a consequence separate from the act but because the “consequence” in question is bound up with, indeed part of, the act itself.
That isn’t to say that the two are indistinguishable; on the contrary. But if I’m right to characterize their relationship as I just did, then we should expect to see “good” and “right” most firmly distinguished when we are talking about consequences most easily separated from acts — for example, when one person is acting and another person is bearing the consequences. And I think that’s just what we do find.
For example, the “wrongness” of stealing your personal property doesn’t seem to be just a matter of reducing the overall amount of “good,” for it might sometimes be the case that I would increase happiness — maybe even your happiness — by giving some of your stuff to somebody else. The problem seems to lie in my interference with your aims, ends, goals, and so forth; there seems to be something “wrong” in the manner in which I do this (and the insight here seems to depend in turn on, but not to reduce to, the insight that it is somehow intrinsically good that there are autonomous persons). And this is a case in which we most sharply distinguish between the wrongness of my act, on the one hand, and the goodness or badness of the “consequences” I may bring about, on the other.
In general I suspect that we find the clearest distinction between the rightness of acts, on the one hand, and the goodness of consequences or states of affairs, on the other, in cases in which two teloi come into apparent conflict. When I deal only with my own telos, I find myself talking mostly about “good” (and unable to distinguish firmly between good and right). But when my telos knocks up against yours, I find myself talking about the wrongness of my actions and your rights against me that I shouldn’t act that way, as distinct from the possible goodness of your own aims in and of themselves.
If that’s correct, then Blanshard was mistaken in holding that rightness simply reduces to the production of good consequences (even in his extended sense of the word “consequences”). It can still be the case that certain actions are simply right or wrong in and of themselves to a very high degree. But Ross erred in the other direction; it’s not the case that rightness just isn’t further analyzable at all, or that it’s completely independent of the production of good. (The exchange between Alfred Ewing and Brand Blanshard in The Philosophy of Brand Blanshard is instructive in this regard.) I don’t claim to have a clear and cogent analysis of rightness/wrongness and exactly what it has to do with teleology; I just want to suggest that rightness is, in the final analysis, a teleological concept even if not a strictly “utilitarian” or “consequentialist” one.
If this is correct, though, we find additional confirmation of a claim I made above: that there is a single overarching rational will expressing itself through the thoughts and actions of all rational beings (perhaps through all sentient ones). For my own part, I find that when I try to discover just what I think is wrong about e.g. the violation of rights, I seem to be depending on a strong presumption: that there are, in the final analysis, no ultimately irresoluble conflicts of real interest among rational agents.
Of course conflicts of interest do occur; we encounter them every day. My claim here is that, in holding that certain ways of treating each other are “wrong,” we are depending on an intuition that there is some way to make our interests cohere — perhaps by getting a better understanding of our true interests, perhaps by adjusting our ends, perhaps merely by finding other means to achieve the ends we currently have. On this view, conflicts are not bad news but opportunities for growth, if we deal with them reasonably and don’t let them get out of hand. Moreover, they certainly do not require us merely to relinquish our own interests in any self-effacing, self-sacrificial manner, but rather invite us to find common solutions that genuinely promote the interests of all the parties involved. (And you’ve just read one of the primary reasons why I enjoy mediation.)
My point is that this presumption makes excellent sense on the view that our true interests are expressed by a single rational will that coherently incorporates my interest and yours. It doesn’t make such good sense otherwise. For unless you and I have a common end, how could it be that what is good or bad for you imposes moral limitations on me? Unless I can somehow connect your good and bad with mine — even if only by way of the bare rational insight that persons other than myself have goods and bads not altogether unlike mine — it doesn’t seem that your well-being could ever get any moral purchase on me; any reasons you could give me for being interested in your well-being would presume that I already was thus interested.
Mind you, the argument here is not that we (a) see this ideal end and then (b) deduce from it that we have certain obligations. The order of knowledge is just the reverse of this; we begin with what Ross would have characterized as a priori insight into moral principles, and work our way forward to construct the ideal end that incorporates all of our relevant interests. What I am saying is that, in order for this ideal end to be “available” to us as a guide in our construction, it must metaphysically be the case that the ethical ideal has a kind of eternal existence.
Ultimately this view is just a special case of my view of reason generally: our minds participate in a common intelligible order, and to the extent that we think rationally, that order itself is an immanent ideal governing our thought process “from the inside.” When, for example, we think about arithmetic, our thought is governed by the entire system of numbers even when we solve a simple problem like 2+2=4; even though we have to “come at” the solution or result constructively, a bit at a time, still the metaphysical fact is that the entire system is “all there at once,” eternally, informing and guiding the process of its own realization in our thought.
I claim that something parallel to this is going on in our ethical thought. We begin with rational insights, intuitions, into what is good and evil, right and wrong, corresponding roughly to (though much less clear and more fallible than) the insight that 2+2=4. But as we reflect on these prima facie goods and evils, rights and wrongs, our thought is governed by the overarching ideal end represented by the “rational will,” and we more closely approach that ideal the more we modify our ethical beliefs through such reflection.
All of which means that I accept a Rossian-intuitionist account of how ethical reflection begins. On the whole I think Ross’s criticisms of idealistic ethics were helpful and sound. But I also think that an idealistic account of reason is necessary to capture how ethical reflection works, and in particular to account for the governance of ethical thought by a rational ideal.
Which leads me to a final point. Most of what I’ve had to say here has really had to do with “metaethics” rather than with ethics proper; I haven’t said much of anything about what sort of thing idealist ethics regard as good. On this subject I’m going to content myself with a couple of general remarks.
First: idealist ethicists have generally favored an ethic of self-realization or self-actualization, and taken it more or less for granted that there is something intrinsically good about the existence of self-directed persons. The range of such ethics has been quite wide; F.H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies offered a more or less Hegelian account that Bradley took to be completely at odds with utilitarianism, whereas T.L.S. Sprigge’s The Rational Foundation of Ethics offers a variant that Sprigge takes to be “utilitarian” in the broadest sense. (Blanshard, too, understood his account to be essentially utilitarian, though he preferred the term “teleological” for somewhat different reasons than mine.) But at any rate, as a matter of history, idealistic ethics have generally taken the development and realization of selves to be the heart of what we mean by “good.”
Such a view does, by the way, entail that there is an irreducibly “subjective” element in ethical goodness: the sort of thing that, in Blanshard’s terms, fulfills and satisfies a specific agent will depend intimately on the talents and tastes of that agent. This sort of “subjectivity” does not undermine genuine ethical objectivity, however, because (a) it is still objectively the case that one’s subjective good is better sought in one way rather than another, and (b) some activities, as such, provide fuller opportunities than others for the flowering of human powers, even if not all persons are equally suited to participate in them.
Second: I think this sort of account is fully consistent with the sort of modified-intuitionist account I’ve suggested in this essay. I think we do have a genuine rational insight to the effect that, for example, the achievement of a goal or the fulfillment of an end by an agent is prima facie intrinsically good, and that certain ways of treating other agents are prima facie wrong. Where I depart from Ross is in my belief that “rightness” can be given some sort of teleological analysis, perhaps something like Ewing’s “fittingness” or “oughtness.”
I do, though, concur with Ross that it isn’t really the business of ethical philosophy to provide guidance about specific ethical issues. We all of us have fairly reliable insight on such points (subject always to further reflection). We do sometimes disagree (or think we disagree) about ethical issues, but this fact is no more problematic than disagreement about anything else. Indeed, the very fact of disagreement presumes that there is a genuine “matter of fact” about which we are disagreeing.
But there is nothing in my account of ethics that requires us to deduce our everyday ethical principles with certainty from a given ideal end, and nothing that prevents us from recognizing the extreme fallibility of many of our ethical judgments. On the contrary, disagreement and uncertainty are exactly what we should expect on a roughly Rossian account of prima facie goods and obligations that must always be balanced and set off against one another. On such an account, we should expect our clearest knowledge to be of the most abstract principles, and our thought to become more tentative and groping the more closely we approach the specificity of an actual set of circumstances. This, too, is just a special case of how reason works in general.
In summary, then, what does objective idealism say about ethics? In this short essay, I’ve suggested that it says at least the following: our obligations against one another depend on the existence of a common ideal end sought by an overarching “rational will”; that we have no direct epistemological access to this end but must come at it constructively, beginning with rational intuition/insight into goodness and rightness; that rightness is not simply a matter of producing good consequences (even in Blanshard’s extended sense of “consequences”) but is nevertheless intimately bound up with teleology and intentionality.
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