C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory, 1930


Introduction: Biographical Details

      I propose in this book to expound and criticise five typical theories of ethics, viz., those of Spinoza, Butler, Hume, Kant, and Sidgwick. My choice of these five systems was largely determined by the following considerations. In the first place, they are extremely unlike each other, so that between them they give a very fair idea of the range of possible views on the subject, though they by no means exhaust all the alternatives. Secondly, all five authors are thinkers of the highest rank, so it is reasonable to suppose that the types of ethical theory which they favoured will be worth very serious consideration. Since their views differ fundamentally from each other, they cannot all be true in all respects, and it is of course unlikely that any of them contains the whole truth and nothing but the truth about ethics. But it seems likely that each of these great men will have seen some important aspect of the subject, and that the mistake of each will have been to emphasise this aspect to the exclusion of others which are equally relevant. It appears to me that the best preparation for original work on any philosophic problem is to study the solutions which have been proposed for it by men of genius whose views differ from each other as much as possible. The clash of their opinions may strike a light which will enable [2] us to avoid the mistakes into which they have fallen; and by noticing the strong and weak points of each theory we may discover the direction in which further progress can be made.

      I have treated the five moralists in their historical order, and I have not cumbered the discussion with biographical matter or textual criticism. The minute study of the works of great philosophers from the historical and philological point of view is an innocent and even praiseworthy occupation for learned men. But it is not philosophy; and, to me at least, it is not interesting. My primary interest in this book is to find out what is true and what is false about ethics; and the statements of our authors are important to me only in so far as they suggest possible answers to this question. I hope and believe that I have not misrepresented any of the moralists under discussion. I have always tried to put what seems to me to be their fundamental meaning in modern terms and as plausibly as possible. But I am well aware that, in many places, alternative views about what they may have meant can quite reasonably be held. This applies in the main to Spinoza, whose whole terminology and way of looking at things is extremely unfamiliar to us nowadays, and to Kant, who, as Lord Balfour happily says, contrived to be technical without being precise. Butler, Hume, and Sidgwick are admirably clear writers, and they belong to our own country and tradition; so that there is seldom any doubt about their meaning.

      For the sake of those readers whom it may concern I will give here very short biographical sketches of our five moralists.

      Spinoza belonged to a family of Portuguese Jews which had fled to Holland to escape persecution. He was born at Amsterdam on 24th November 1632. He [3] studied at a rabbinical school, where he read the Old Testament, the Talmud, and various Hebrew commentators and philosophers, such as Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. At one time he also read a good deal of Cabalistic literature, but in the end it filled him with contempt. Spinoza was eighteen years old when Descartes died, and he learned Latin in order to be able to read Descartes' works. Though he differed profoundly from Descartes, and criticised him severely, he said that he had won all his own philosophical possessions from the study of Descartes.

      By 1656 Spinoza had departed so far from orthodox Judaism that he was excommunicated by the Synagogue and solemnly cursed in the name of God and His holy Angels. Shortly afterwards a pious member of the congregation, remembering that divine Providence often condescends to act through secondary causes, tried to murder Spinoza in the street with a dagger. This was not the only narrow escape which Spinoza had from death by human violence. In 1673, when the French were invading Holland, Spinoza accepted an invitation to visit the French camp at Utrecht in order to discuss philosophy with Conde, their general, who was a Cartesian. The Dutch, like other nations in war-time, were seeing the "hidden hand" in the most unlikely places, and Spinoza was suspected to be a spy and was in great danger from a mob which demonstrated outside the house in which he lodged at the Hague. In this very ugly situation he displayed the most admirable courage and coolness, and succeeded in convincing the mob of his innocence and making it disperse.

      After his encounter with the Zealot with the dagger Spinoza left Amsterdam and lived for a time at a house in the country belonging to the Collegiants, a sect of evangelical [4] Christians. In 1669 he moved into the Hague, where he lived with a painter called van den Spijck till 21st February 1677, when he died of consumption at the age of forty-four. He made his living by grinding and polishing lenses for optical instruments, and he seems to have been highly skilled at his craft. He corresponded with several people on philosophical and scientific subjects, and his letters are important as throwing light on obscure points in his philosophy. His most important work is the Ethics, in which he expounds his complete system in the form of definitions, axioms, postulates, and theorems, as in Euclid. This was not published until after his death.

      Spinoza was offered the professorship of philosophy at Heidelberg on highly favourable terms by Karl Ludwig of the Palatinate, a very enlightened prince. He refused on the double ground that he would be certain sooner or later to get into trouble for religious unorthodoxy and that he did not want to have to interrupt his own work by formal teaching. It is to be feared that Spinoza would not have been enlightened enough to appreciate the beneficent system of the Ph.D. degree, introduced into English universities as a measure of post-war propaganda, whereby the time and energy of those who are qualified to do research are expended in supervising the work of those who never will be.

      Joseph Butler was the son of a linen-draper who had been successful in business and had retired on a competency. He was born at Wantage on 18th May 1692, the youngest of a long family. His father intended him for the Presbyterian ministry and sent him to a dissenting academy, first at Gloucester and then at Tewkesbury. He stayed on for some time as an usher, and in 1713, whilst still there, [5] he wrote anonymously to Samuel Clarke an acute criticism of certain points in the latter's Boyle Lectures on the Being and Attributes of God. The modesty of the younger man, and the courtesy of the older, do the utmost credit to both. A number of letters were exchanged, and in time Clarke came to know and admire Butler.

      Soon Butler began to emerge from the slavery of Geneva into the reasonable liberty of Lambeth. He decided to become an Anglican clergyman, and, after some difficulty, persuaded his father to send him to Oriel College, Oxford. He took his B.A. degree in October 1718 at the age of twenty-six. Almost directly afterwards he was ordained priest and deacon at Salisbury. Through influential friends and his own merits he now started on a steady course of ecclesiastical preferment. He became preacher at the Rolls Chapel in London in 1719, Prebendary of Salisbury in 1721, Rector of Houghton-le-Skerne near Darlington in the following year, and Rector of the then extremely valuable living of Stanhope in Durham in 1725.

      His Sermons on Human Nature, which are his most important contribution to ethics, were delivered at the Rolls Chapel, and were published in 1726 after he had resigned his preachership there. In 1736 appeared his other great work, the Analogy, which is perhaps the ablest and fairest argument for theism that exists. A short appendix to this is devoted to ethics.

      In 1736 he became Prebendary of Rochester and Clerk of the Closet to Queen Caroline. The queen was a lady of very great intelligence both practical and theoretical, as anyone can see who gives himself the pleasure of reading Lord Hervey's Memoirs. She was keenly interested in metaphysics and theology, and she greatly appreciated [6] Butler's gifts. She died in the latter part of 1737, commending Butler to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Butler preached an eloquent sermon on "profiting by affliction" to the heart-broken widower, who had declared through his sobs to his dying wife that he would never marry again but would only keep mistresses. George II was deeply affected, and promised to "do something very good" for Butler.

      After such happy auspices Butler was naturally a little disappointed when Walpole offered him only the See of Bristol, at that time one of the poorest of the English bishoprics. However, he bore his cross and entered on his duties in }738. He remained at Bristol till 1750, collecting in the meanwhile such minor scraps of preferment as the Deanery of St Paul's in 1746 and the Clerkship of the Closet to the King in 1747. In the latter year he was offered and declined the Archbishopric of Canterbury. In 1750 his journeys through the wilderness terminated in the promised land of the Bishopric of Durham. This he did not live long to enjoy. His health broke down, and he retired first to Bristol and then to Bath, where he died in 1752. He is buried in the cathedral at Bristol, and the visitor may read a long and flowery inscription, put up in the nineteenth century, in which his achievements as a theologian are fittingly recorded.

      Butler seems to have been a thoroughly unworldly man whom the world treated very well. He took no part in politics; and, although he was no doubt fortunate in having certain influential friends, it is probably true that he owed his advancement mainly to his sheer merits as a moralist and a theologian. We all know how greatly Church and State have advanced in morality since the corrupt first half [7] of the eighteenth century; and it is gratifying to think that a man like Butler would now be allowed to pursue his studies with singularly little risk of being exposed to the dangers and temptations of high office or lucrative preferment.

      David Hume was born at Edinburgh on 26th April 1711. He was a younger son of a Scottish country gentleman, who, like most Scottish country gentlemen, was of good family and small means. At the age of twenty-three Hume went into a merchant's office at Bristol; but he found the life intolerable, and decided to live very economically in France, pursuing his studies on his own tiny income. He settled at La Flèche, where Descartes had been educated by the Jesuits. While there he wrote the first two volumes of his Treatise on Human Nature. He came home in 1737 to arrange for their publication, and they appeared in 1739. They failed to attract any attention, and Hume was bitterly disappointed. He continued, however, to work at the third volume, on Morals, which appeared in 1749. in 1741 he published a volume of Essays Moral and Political. This was more successful; it went into a second edition, and he added a second volume to it in 1742.

      During this time Hume had been living on his elder brother's estate at Ninewells in Berwickshire, trying mean while to get some congenial and remunerative employment. Twice he tried and failed to be appointed to a university professorship. To vary the monotony of life he spent a year as tutor to a lunatic nobleman; he went with General St. Clair as secretary on one of those strange expeditions which English war-ministers were liable to send to the coast of France; and in 1748 he took part in a diplomatic mission to Vienna and Turin. [8]

      In 1748 he published a third volume of Essays, and also a condensed and simplified form of Book I of the Treatise, entitled Philosophical Essays concerning Human Understanding. In 1758 this reappeared under the title of An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. His most important ethical work is the Enquiry into the Principles of Morals. This is founded on Book III of the Treatise on Human Nature. It was published in 1751, and Hume considered it to be "incomparably the best" of all his writings.

      In 1752 the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh made Hume their librarian. The salary was vanishingly small; but the position gave Hume the run of a fine library, and he started to write a History of England. He began with the House of Stuart. The repercussions of the events of that period were still being felt, and Hume's sympathy with Charles I and Strafford raised an almost universal outcry. In 1756 he published the second volume, which dealt with the period from the death of Charles I to the Revolution. This gave less offence to the Whigs, and its success helped on the sale of the peccant first volume. In 1759 appeared the volume which treated of the House of Tudor. It also caused great scandal; but Hume worked steadily away at his History and completed it in two more volumes published m 1761.

      Hume was now fairly well off, and had determined to settle down for the rest of his life in Scotland. But in 1763 a pressing invitation from the Earl of Hertford took him to Paris, where he became secretary to the English embassy. Hume had great social success in the society of Paris, and enjoyed his life there very much. In 1766 he returned to London with Rousseau, whom he had befriended, and who, [9] it is scarcely necessary to add, afterwards quarrelled with him. In 1769 he finally returned to Edinburgh with a private income of £1000 a year.

      Here he had expected to spend many happy years. But in 1775 he was stricken down with an internal complaint which he recognised to be mortal. He suffered little pain, and bore his steadily increasing weakness with wonderful cheerfulness. He died on 26th August 1776 in Edinburgh, causing the deepest offence to Dr Johnson by the happy and even jocular frame of mind in which he approached the great unknown. Shortly before his death he had written a brief autobiography, which was published in 1777 by his friend Adam Smith. In 1779 his nephew David published his uncle's Dialogues on Natural Religion, which, so far as the present writer can see, leave little further to be said on the subject. Hume wrote two essays, one on Suicide, and the other on Immortality, which were suppressed and remained unpublished for many years after his death. Both are masterly productions. To philosophers Hume is best known for his criticisms on the notion of Causation and on the logical foundations of Induction. It is unfortunate that the general public should know him mainly as the author of the- one thoroughly silly production of his pen, viz., the notorious Essay on Miracles.

      Immanuel Kant was born at Königsberg in East Prussia in 1724, thirteen years after Hume. He survived Hume by twenty-eight years. His father was a saddler, and his family is said to have been of Scottish origin on the father's side. Kant's parents belonged to the evangelical sect called Pietists, and his very rigoristic ethics bear witness to the stern moral principles which he absorbed in youth.

      Kant is the first professional philosopher with whom we [10] have to deal in this book. He became professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Königsberg in 1770, and continued to hold this office till his death in 1804. He used also to lecture in the university on Anthropology and Physical Geography. His life was regular and uneventful to the last degree, but he was one of the most important and original thinkers of whom we have any record: He has, indeed, been described by Mr. Bertrand Russell as "a disaster"; but it seems a pity to apply to him an epithet which should obviously be reserved for Hegel. His most important works are his three Critiques, that of Pure Reason, that of Practical Reason, and that of Judgment. The first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason appeared in 1781, and the second considerably modified edition in 1787. This is probably the most important philosophical work which had appeared in Europe since Aristotle's Metaphysics. It is abominably obscure, but one feels that the obscurity is that of a man who has to deliver a very complicated and important message in a short time, and whose words and ideas stumble over each other.

      The Critique of Practical Reason was published in 1788. It contains Kant's theory of ethics, and the metaphysical conclusions which he claimed to be able to prove from ethical premises after denying that they could be proved in any other way. The purely ethical part of it is stated more simply and briefly in the Foundations of the Metaphysic of Morals, which appeared in 1785. There is a second part of this work, which deals with the particular virtues and vices in terms of the general theory. This was not published until 1797.

      The third Critique, that of Judgment, was published in 1790. It contains Kant's theory of the Beautiful and the [11] Sublime, and also an extraordinarily able and balanced, but terribly long-winded, discussion of the notions of mechanism, design, and teleology, their mutual relations, and their legitimacy as principles of explanation.

      There is no important problem in any branch of philosophy which is not treated by Kant, and he never treated a problem without saying something illuminating and original about it. He was certainly wrong on many points of detail, and he may well be wrong in his fundamental principles; but, when all criticisms have been made, it seems to me that Kant's failures are more important than most men's successes.

      He was keenly interested in philosophical theology, and there is a progressive widening in his treatment of this subject from the mainly negative dialectic of the Critique of Pure Reason, through the purely ethical argument of the Critique of Practical Reason, to the reconsideration of the argument from design in the widest sense which occupies so much of the Critique of Judgment. If any reader who is interested in this subject will study Butler's Analogy, Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion, and the theological parts of Kant's three Critiques, he will learn all that the human mind is ever likely to be able to know about the matter, with just one grave omission. The omission is that he will find nothing about the claims of specifically religious and mystical experience to give information about this aspect of reality. It is, perhaps, worth while to add in this connexion that, just as Butler treated specifically Christian doctrines in the second part of the Analogy, so Kant treated them in a book called Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason. This work, which was published in 1793, also throws light on certain points in Kant's ethical theory. [12]

      With Henry Sidgwick we come to comparatively recent times. He was born at Skipton in Yorkshire in 1838. His father, the Rev. William Sidgwick, was headmaster of Skipton Grammar School. Sidgwick went to Rugby in 1852, and came up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1855. He had a brilliant undergraduate career as a classic, and became Fellow and Assistant Tutor of Trinity in 1859. He early developed an interest in philosophical and ethical subjects, and was noted among his undergraduate contemporaries for his acuteness of thought and clearness of expression. He was a member of the society called the Apostles, and he used to take part in philosophical discussions in a small society which met for that purpose at the house of John Grote, the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Cambridge.

      The Moral Sciences Tripos was founded in 1851, and Moral Science was admitted as a qualification for a degree in 1860. Sidgwick examined for this tripos in 1865 and 1866. In 1869, finding that his interests had become predominantly philosophical, he exchanged his classical lectureship at Trinity for one in Moral Science. In the same year, however, he began to have conscientious scruples about the religious declaration which it was then necessary for a fellow of a college to make. He accordingly resigned his fellowship, but was permitted by the College to retain his lectureship. Within a short time, the religious tests were abolished; so Sidgwick, like Charles Honeyman, had the advantage of "being St. Laurence on a cold gridiron". It is fair to say, however, that it would have made no difference to his action if the gridiron had been red-hot. In connexion with this incident he published a tract on The Ethics of Subscription, and the subject is also discussed very fully [13] and fairly in his Methods of Ethics. It is interesting to remark that the Utilitarian Sidgwick took a more rigoristic view on this question than The Idealist Green. |

      In 1872, on the death of F. D. Maurice and the consequent vacancy in the Knightbridge Professorship, Sidgwick applied for the post. He was at this time unsuccessful; the electors considered that the soundly evangelical views of one of the other candidates more than atoned for any slight lack in philosophical distinction. The disappointment was only temporary, for in 1883, when the Professorship again fell vacant Sidgwick was elected, and continued to hold the chair until his death in 1900.

      In 1875 he had been appointed Prelector in Moral and Political Philosophy at Trinity; in 1881 an honorary fellow; and in 1885 he again became an ordinary fellow of the college. In the meanwhile he had married a sister of the present Earl of Balfour, who shared his two great interests apart from philosophy, viz., the higher education of women and the investigation of alleged supernormal psychical phenomena. Sidgwick and his wife must take a great share in the credit or discredit for founding and fostering Newnham College and for the present position of women in the University of Cambridge. Whether the object which they accomplished was a good or a bad one is a question on which equally intelligent and virtuous persons are likely to differ till the end of time; but no one can fail to admire the single-minded devotion with which they spent time, labour, and money to bring it about.

      The foundation of the Society for Psychical Research, and the keeping of it in the straight and narrow path of science in face of dogmatic materialism and enthusiastic credulity, are achievements on which they can be [14] congratulated without reserve. Sidgwick was president of the society from 1882 to 1885, and again from 1888 to 1893, whilst Mrs Sidgwick remains one of its most prominent and valued members. It would be difficult to imagine anyone better fitted by the perfect balance of his mind for research in this most difficult and irritating subject than Sidgwick.

      Sidgwick's chief ethical works are his Methods of Ethics and his Ethics of Green, Spencer, and Martineau. He was at once critical and eclectic, and he tried to make a synthesis of a chastened Intuitionism with a chastened Utilitarianism. In the course of his work almost all the main problems of ethics are discussed with extreme acuteness, and that is why I have devoted a much longer essay to Sidgwick than to any of the other moralists whom I treat in this book. In the other essays exposition and criticism have been about equally mixed. But, in dealing with Sidgwick, I have let the argument carry me whither it would. In each section of the essay I start from some point in Sidgwick and I eventually return to it; but I often wander very far afield and express my own thoughts, for what they are worth, in the meanwhile.

      In conclusion I must say that I have confined myself as far as possible to the purely ethical views of the writers under consideration. In the case of Kant and Sidgwick their theology is so closely bound up with their ethics that I have had to say something about it. But in the other cases I have felt myself justified in letting sleeping Gods lie.

Table of Contents ----- Chapter 2