W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good, 1930.


The purpose of this inquiry is to examine the nature, relations, and implications of three conceptions which appear to be fundamental in ethics -- those of 'right', 'good' in general, and 'morally good'. The inquiry will have much in common with the inquiries, of which there have been many in recent years, into the nature of value, and I shall have occasion to discuss some of the more important theories of value; but my object is a more limited one. I offer no discussion, except at most a purely incidental and illustrative one, of certain forms of value, such as economic value and beauty. My interest will throughout be ethical, and value will be discussed only so far as it seems to be relevant to this interest.

I propose to begin with the term 'right'. A considerable ambiguity attaches to any attempt to discuss the meaning of any term. Professor G. E. Moore has well indicated three main objects that such an attempt at definition may have.

'When we say, as Webster says, "The definition of horse is, 'A hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus'," we may, in fact, mean three different things.
  1. We may mean merely: "When I say 'horse', you are to understand that I am talking about a hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus." This might be called the arbitrary verbal definition. . . .
  2. We may mean, as Webster ought to mean: "When most English people say 'horse', they mean a hoofed quadruped of the genus Equus." This may be called the verbal definition proper. . . . But
  3. we may, when we define horse, mean something much more important. We may mean that a certain object, which we all of us know, is composed in a certain manner: that it has four legs, a head, a heart, a liver, etc., etc., all of them arranged in definite relations to one another.'1

We must ask ourselves whether, in discussing the meaning of'right', we are attempting any one of these kinds of definition, or something different from them all. I certainly do not wish merely to indicate a sense in which I propose to use the term 'right'. I wish to keep in touch with the general usage of the word. While other things may be called 'right' (as in the phrases 'the right road', 'the right solution'), the word is specially applied to acts, and it is the sense (by general consent a very important one) in which it is so applied that I wish to discuss. But we must be prepared to find that the general usage of the word is not entirely consistent with itself. Most of the words in any language have a certain amount of ambiguity: and there is special danger of ambiguity in the case of a word like 'right', which does not stand for anything we can point out to one another or apprehend by one of the senses. Even with words that do stand for such things there is this danger. Even if two people find that the things the one calls red are just the things the other calls red, it is by no means certain that they mean the same quality. There is only a general presumption that since the structure of their eyes (if neither is colour-blind) is pretty much the same, the same object acting on the eyes of the two men produces pretty much the same kind of sensation. And in the case of a term like 'right', there is nothing parallel to the highly similar organization of different people's eyes, to create a presumption that when they call the same act right, they mean to refer to the same quality of it. In point of fact, there is a serious difference of view as to the application of the term 'right'. Suppose, for instance, that a man pays a particular debt simply from fear of the legal consequences of not doing so, some people would say he had done what was right, and others would deny this: they would say that no moral value attaches to such an act, and that since 'right' is meant to imply moral value, the act cannot be right. They might generalize and say that no act is right unless it is done from a sense of duty, or if they shrank from so rigorous a doctrine, they might at least say that no act is right unless done from some good motive, such as either sense of duty or benevolence.

This difference of view may be due to either of two causes. Both parties may be using 'right' in the same sense, the sense of 'morally obligatory', and differing as to the further character an act must have in order to have this quality. Or the first party may be using 'right' in this sense, and the second in the sense of 'morally good'. It is not clear to me which of these two things is usually happening when this difference of view arises. But it seems probable that both things really happen -- that some people fail to notice the distinction between 'right' and 'morally good', and that others, while distinguishing the meaning of these terms, think that only what is morally good is right. A discussion of the first of these positions only is strictly in point here, where we are discussing the meaning of 'right'. It seems to me clear that 'right' does not mean the same as 'morally good,'; and we can test this by trying to substitute one for the other. If they meant the same thing we should be able to substitute, for instance, 'he is a right man' for 'he is a morally good man'; nor is our inability to do this merely a matter of English idiom, for if we turn to the sort of moral judgement in which we do use the word 'right', such as 'this is the right act', it is clear that by this we mean 'this act is the act that ought to be done', 'this act is morally obligatory'; and to substitute either of these phrases for 'morally good' in 'he is a morally good man' would obviously be not merely unidiomatic, but absurd. It should be obvious, then, that 'right' and 'morally good' mean different things. But some one might say that while 'morally good' has a wider application than 'right', in that it can be applied to agents as well as to acts, yet when applied to acts they mean the same thing. I should like therefore to convince him that 'right act' cannot mean the same as 'act that ought to be done' and also the same as 'morally good act'. If I can convince him of this, I think he will see the propriety of not using 'right act' in the sense of 'morally good act'.

But we ought first to note a minor difference between the meaning of 'right' and the meaning of 'something that ought to be done' or 'that is my duty' or 'that is incumbent on me'. It may sometimes happen that there is a set of two or more acts one or other of which ought to be done by me rather than any act not belonging to this set. In such a case any act of this set is right, but none is my duty; my duty is to do 'one or other' of them. Thus 'right' has a somewhat wider possible application than 'something that ought to be done' or any of its equivalents. But we want an adjective to express the same meaning as 'something that ought to be done', and though we have 'obligatory' at our disposal, that also has its ambiguity, since it sometimes means 'compulsory'. We should have to say 'morally obligatory' to make our meaning quite clear; and to obviate the necessity of using this rather cumbrous expression, I will use 'right' in this sense. I hope that this paragraph will prevent any confusion arising from this slightly inaccurate usage.

Some might deny the correctness of the distinction just drawn. They might say that when there are two or more acts one or other of which, as we say, we ought to do (it not being our duty to do one rather than another), the truth is that these are simply alternative ways of producing a single result, and that our duty is, strictly, not to do 'one or other' of the acts, but to produce the result; this alone is our duty, and this alone is right. This answer does, I think, fairly apply to many cases in which it is the production of a certain result that we think obligatory, the means being optional: e.g. to a case in which it is our duty to convey information to some one, but morally immaterial whether we do so orally or in writing. But in principle, at any rate, there may be other cases in which it is our duty to produce one or other of two or more different states of affairs, without its being our duty to produce one of tnem rather than another; in such a case each of these acts will be right, and none will be our duty.

If it can be shown that nothing that ought to be done is ever morally good, it will be clear a fortiori that 'morally good' does not mean the same as 'that ought to be done'. Now it is, I think quite clear that the only acts that are morally good are those that proceed from a good motive; this is maintained by those whom I am now trying to convince, and I entirely agree. If, then, we can show that action from a good motive is never moraly obligatory, we shall have established that what is morally good is never right, and a fortiori that 'right' does not mean the same as 'morally good'. That action from a good motive is never morally obligatory follows (1) from the Kantian principle, which is generally admitted, that 'I ought' implies, I can'. It is not the case that I can by choice produce a certain motive (whether this be an ordinary desire or the sense of obligation) in myself at a moment's notice, still less that I can at a moment's notice make it effective in stimulating me to act. I can act from a certain motive only if I have the motive; if not, the most I can do is to cultivate it by suitably directing my attention or by acting in certain appropriate ways so that on some future occasion it will be present in me, and I shall be able to act from it. My present duty, therefore, cannot be to act here and now from it.

(2) A similar conclusion may be reached by a reductio ad absurdum. Those who hold that our duty is to act from a certain motive usually (Kant is the geat exemplar) hold that the motive from which we oupht to act is the sense of duty. Now if the sense of duty is to be my motive for doing a certain act, it must be the sense that it is my duty to do that act. If, therefore, we say 'it is my duty to do act A from the sense of duty', this means 'it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A'. And here the whole expression is in contradiction with a part of itself. The whole sentence says 'it is my duty to-do-act-A-from-the-sense-that-it-is-my-duty-to-do-act-A'. But the latter part of the sentence implies that what I think is that it is my duty to-do-act-A simply. And if, as the theory in question requires, we try to amend the latter part the expression to bring it into accord with the whole expression, we get the result 'it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A from the sense that it is my duty to do act A', where again the last part of the expression is in conflict with the theory, and with the sentence as a whole. It is clear that a further similar amendment, and a further, and in the end in infinite series of amendments would be necessary in the attempt to bring the last part of the expression into accordance with the theory, and that even then we should not have succeeded in doing so.

Again, suppose that I say to you 'it is your duty to do act A from the sense of duty'; that means 'it is your duty to do act A from the sense that it is your duty to do act A'. Then I think that it is your duty to act from a certain motive, but I suggest that you should act under the supposition that it is your duty to do a certain thing, irrespective of motive, i. e. under a supposition which l must think raise since it contradicts my own.

The only conclusion that can be drawn is that our duty is to do certain things, not to do them from the sense of duty.2

The latter of these two arguments ( (1) and (2) ) cannot be used against those who hold that it is our duty to act from some other motive than the sense of duty; the sense of duty is the only motive that leads to the infinite series in question. But the first of the two arguments seems in itself sufficient against any theory which holds that motive of any kind is included in the content of duty. And though the second argument does not refute the view that we ought to act from some other motive, it would be paradoxical to hold that we ought to act from some other motive but never ought to act from a sense of duty, which is the highest motive.3

Let us now return to the three senses in which Professor Moore points out that we may understand an attempt to define a certain term.4 So far, the position we have taken up with regard to 'right' includes something of each of the first two attitudes he distinguishes. In using 'right' as synonymous (but for the minor distinction already pointed out)5 with 'what is my duty', and as distinct from 'morally good', I believe I am conforming to what most men (if not all men) usually mean when they use the word. But I could not maintain that they always use the word in this way. I am, therefore, to some extent adopting the first of the attitudes he distinguishes, and expressing my own intention to use 'right' in this sense only. And this is justified by the great confusion that has been introduced into ethics by the phrase 'a right action' being used sometimes of the initiation of a certain change in the state of affairs irrespective of motive, and at other times of such initiation from some particular motive, such as sense of duty or benevolence. I would further suggest that additional clearness would be gained if we used 'act' of the thing done, the initiation of change, and 'action' of the doing of it, the initiating of change, from a certain motive. We should then talk of a right act but not of a right action, of a morally good action but not of a morally good act. And it may be added that the doing of a right act may be a morally bad action, and that the doing of a wrong act may be a morally good action; for 'right' and 'womg' refer entirely to the thing done, 'morally good' and 'morally bad' entirely to the motive from which it is done. A firm grasp of this distinction will do much to remove some of the perplexities of our moral thought.

The question remains, what attitude we are to take up towards Professor Moore's third sense of 'definition'. Are we to hold that 'right' can be defined in the sense of being reduced to elements simpler than itself? At first sight it might appear that egoism and utilitarianism are attempts to define 'right' -- to define it as 'productive of the greatest possible pleasure to the agent' or as 'productive of the greatest possible pleasure to mankind'; and I think these theories have often been so understood by some of those who accept them. But the leaders of the school are not unanimous in so understanding their theory. Bentham seems to understand it so. He says6 that 'when thus interpreted' (i.e. as meaning 'conformable to the principle of utility'), 'the words ought and right. . . and others of that stamp, have a meaning; when otherwise, they have none'. And elsewhere7 he says 'admitting (what is not true) that the word right can have a meaning without reference to utility'. Yet, as Sidgwick points out,8 'when Bentham explains (Principles of Morals and Legislation, Chap, I,§I, note) that his fundamental principle "states the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question as being the right and proper end of human action", we cannot understand him really to mean by the word "right" "conducive to the general happiness"; for the proposition that it is conducive to general happiness to take general happiness as an end of action, though not exactly a tautology, can hardly serve as the fundamental principle of a moral system'. Bentham has evidently not made up his mind clearly whether he thinks that 'right' means 'productive of the general happiness', or that being productive of the general happiness is what makes right acts right; and would very likely have thought the difference unimportant. Mill, does not so far as I know discuss the question whether right is definable. He states his creed in the form 'actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness',9 where the claim that is made is not that this is what 'right' means, but that this is the other characteristic in virtue of which actions that are right are right. And Sidgwick says10 that the meaning of 'right' or 'ought' 'is too elementary to admit of any formal definition', and expressly repudiates11 the view that 'right' means 'productive of any particular sort of result'.

The most deliberate claim that 'right' is definable as 'productive of so and so' is made by Prof. G. E. Moore, who claims in Principia Ethica that 'right' means 'productive of the greatest possible good'. Now it has often been pointed out against hedonism, and by no one more clearly than by Professor Moore, that the claim that 'good' just means 'pleasant' cannot seriously be maintained; that while it may or may not be true that the only things that are good are pleasant, the statement that the good is just the pleasant is a synthetic, not an analytic proposition; that the words 'good' and 'pleasant' stand for distinct qualities, even if the things that possess the one are precisely the things that possess the other. If this were not so, it would not be intelligible that the proposition 'the good is just the pleasant' should have been maintained on the one hand, and denied on the other, with so much fervour; for we do not fight for or against analytic propositions; we take them for granted. Must not the same claim be made about the statement 'being right means being an act productive of the greatest good producible in the circumstances'? Is it not plain on reflection that this is not what we mean by right, even if it be a true statement about what is right? It seems clear for instance that when an ordinary man says it is right to fulfil promises he is not in the least thinking of the total consequences of such an act, about which he knows and cares little or nothing. 'Ideal utilitarianism'12 is, it would appear, plausible only when it is understood in not as an analysis or definition of the notion of 'right' but as a statement that all acts that are right, and only these, possess the further characteristic of being productive of the best possible consequences, and are right because they possess this other characteristic.

If I am not mistaken, Professor Moore has moved to this position, from the position that 'right' is analysable into 'productive of the greatest possible good'. In Principia Ethica the latter position is adopted: e.g. 'This use of "right", as denoting what is good as a means, whether or not it is also good as an end, is indeed the use to which I shall confine the word'.13 'To assert that a certain line of conduct is, at a given time, absolutely right or obligatory, is obviously to assert that more good or less evil will exist in the world, if it be adopted, than if anything else be done instead.'14 'To ask what kind of actions one ought to perform, or what kind ofconduct is right, is to ask what kind of effects such action and conduct will produce . . . What I wish first to point out is that "right" does and can mean nothing but "cause of a good result", and is thus always identical with "useful" . . . That the assertion "I am morally bound to perform this action" is identical with the assertion "this action will produce the greatest possible amount of good in the Universe" has already been briefly shewn . . .; but it is important to insist that this fundamental point is demonstrably certain. . . . Our "duty", therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative. And what is "right" or "morally permissible" only differs from this, as what will not cause less good than any possible alternative.'15.

In his later book, Ethics, Professor Moore seems to have come to adopt the other position, though perhaps not quite unequivocally. On page 8 he names as one of the 'more fundamental questions' of ethics the question 'what, after all, is it that we mean to say of an action when we say that it is right or ought to be done?' Here it is still suggested that 'right' is perhaps analysable or definable. But to this question Ethics nowhere distinctly offers an answer, and on page 9 we find, 'Can we discover any single reason, applicable to all right actions equally, which is, in every case, the reason why an action is right, when it is right?' This is the question which Professor Moore in fact sets himself to answer. But the reason for an action's being right is evidently not the same thing as its rightness, and Professor Moore seems already to have passed to the view that productivity of maximum good is not the definition of 'right' but another characteristic which underlies and accounts for the rightness of right acts. Again, he describes hedonistic utilitarianism as asking, 'can we discover any characteristic, over and above the mere fact that they are right, which belongs to absolutely all voluntary actions which are right, and which at the same time does not belong to any except those which are right?'16 This is the question which he describes hedonism as essentially answering, and since his own view differs from hedonism not in logical form but just by the substitution of 'good' for 'pleasure', his theory also seems to be essentially an answer to this question, i.e. not to the question what is rightness but to the question what is the universal accompaniment and, as he is careful to add,17 the necessitating ground of rightness. Again, he describes hedonistic utilitarianism as giving us 'a criterion, or test, or standard by which we could discern with regard to any action whether it is right or wrong'.19 If we contrast this with Principia Ethica, page 169, 'IF I ask whether an action is really my duty or really expedient, the predicate of which I question the applicability to the action in question is precisely the same', we see how much Professor Moore has changed his position, and changed it in the direction in which, as I have been urging, it must be changed if it is to be made plausible. And if it is clear that 'right' does not mean 'productive of the greatest possible good', it is a fortiori clear tliat it does not mean 'productive of the greatest possible pleasure, for the agent or for mankind', but that productivity of the greatest possible pleasure for the agent or for mankind is at most the ground of the rightness of acts, rightness itself being admitted to be a distinct characteristic, and one which utilitarianism does not claim to define.

But there are theories other than utilitarianism which claim to define 'right'. It would be tedious to try to refute all such theories. With regard to many of them20 it seems to be enough to ask one's readers whether it is not clear to them on reflection that the proposed definition of 'right' bears in fact no resemblance to what they mean by 'right'. But there is one group of theories to which some reference should be made, viz. those that give what may be called a subjective theory of 'right', that identify the rightness of an act with its tendency to produce eiyher some feeling or some opinion in the mind of someone who contemplates it. This type of theory has been dealt with very thoroughly by Professor Moore,21 and I should have little or nothing to add to his convincing refutation. But such theories are perhaps even more prevalent with regard to 'good' than to 'right', and in my fourth chapter I discuss them at some length. I would ask my readers to read the argument there offered, and to reflect whether the refutation I offer22 of subjective accounts of 'good' does not apply with equal force to subjective accounts of 'right'.

Any one who is satisfied that neither the subjective theories of the meaning of 'right', nor what is far the most attractive of the attempts to reduce it to simpler objective elements, is correct, will probably be prepared to agree that 'right' is an irreducible notion.

Nor is this result impugned by inquiries into the historical development of our present moral notions from an earlier state of things in which 'what is right' was hardly disentangled from 'what the tribe ordains'. The point is that we can now see clearly that 'right' does not mean 'ordained by any given society'. And it may be doubted whether even primitive men thought that it did. Their thoughts about what in particular was right were to a large extent limited by the customs and sanctions of their race and age. But this is not the same as to say that they thought that 'right' just meant 'what my race and age ordains'. Moral progress has been possible just because there have been men in all ages who have seen the difference and have practised, or at least preached, a morality in some respects higher than that of their race and age. And even the supporters of the lower morality held, we may suspect, that their laws and customs were in accordance with a 'right' other than themselves. 'It is the custom' has been accompanied by 'the custom is right', or 'the custom is ordained by some one who has the right to command'. And if human consciousness is continuous, by descent, with a lower consciousness which had no notion of right at all, that need not make us doubt that the notion is an ultimate and irreducible one, or that the rightness (prima facie)23 of certain types of act is self-evident; for the nature of the self-evident is not to be evident to every mind however undeveloped, but to be apprehended directly by minds which have reached a certain degree of maturity, and for minds to reach the necessary degree of maturity the development that takes place from generation to generation is as much needed as that which takes place from infancy to adult life.

In this connexion it may be well to refer briefly to a theory which has enjoyed much popularity, particularly in France -- the theory of the sociological school of Durkheim and Levy- Bruhl, which seeks to replace moral philosophy by the 'science des moeurs', the historical and comparative study of the moral beliefs and practices of mankind. It would be foolish to deny the value of such a study, or the interest of many of the facts it has brought to light with regard to the historical origin of many such beliefs and practices. It has shown with success that many of the most strongly felt repulsions towards certain types of conduct are relics of a bygone system of totems and fetishes, their connexion with which is little suspected by those who feel them. What must be denied is the capacity of any such inquiry to take the place of moral philosophy. The attitude of the sociological school towards the systems of moral belief that they find current in various ages and races is a curiously inconsistent one. On the one hand we are urged to accept an existing code as something analogous to an existing law of nature, something not to be questioned or criticized but to be accepted and conformed to as part of the given scheme of things; and on this side the school is able sincerely to proclaim itself conservative of moral values, and is indeed conservative to the point of advocating the acceptance in full of conventional morality. On the other hand, by showing that any given code is the product partly of bygone superstitions and partly of out-of-date utilities, it is bound to create in the mind of any one who accepts its teaching (as it presupposes in the mind of the teacher) a sceptical attitude towards any and every given code. In fact the analogy which it draws between a moral code and a natural system like the human body (a favourite comparison) is an entirely fallacious one. By analysing the constituents of the human body you do nothing to diminish the reality of the human body as a given fact, and you learn much which will enable you to deal effectively with its diseases. But beliefs have the characteristics which bodies have not, of being true or false, of resting on knowledge or of being the product of wishes, hopes, and fears; and in so far as you can exhibit them as being the product of purely psychological and non-logical causes of this sort, while you leave intact the fact that many people hold such opinions you remove their authority and their claim to be carried out in practice.

It is often said, in criticism of views such as those of the sociological school, that the question of the validity of a moral code is quite independent of the question of its origin. This does not seem to me to be true. An inquiry into the origin of a judgement may have the effect of establishing its validity. Take, for instance, the judgement that the angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles. We find that the historical origin of this judgement lies in certain pre-existing judgements which are its premisses, plus the exercise of a certain activity of inferring. Now if we find that these pre-existing judgements were really instances of knowing, and that the inferring was also really knowing -- was the apprehension of a necessary connexion -- our inquiry into the origin of the judgement in question will have established its validity. On the other hand, if any one can show that A holds actions of type B to be wrong simply because (for instance) he knows such actions to be forbidden by the society he lives in, he shows that A has no real reason for believing that such actions have the specific quality of wrongness, since between being forbidden by the community and being wrong there is no necessary connexion. He does not, indeed, show the belief to be untrue, but he shows that A has no sufficient reason for holding it true; and in this sense he undermines its validity.

This is, in principle, what the sociological school attempts to do. According to this school, or rather according to its principles if consistently carried out, no one moral code is any truer, any nearer to the apprehension of an objective moral truth, than any other; each is simply the code that is necessitated by the conditions of its time and place, and is that which most completely conduces to the preservation of the society that accepts it. But the human mind will not rest content with such a view. It is not in the least bound to say that there has been constant progress in morality, or in moral belief. But it is competent to see that the moral code of one race or age is in certain respects inferior to that of another. It has in fact an a priori insight into certain broad principles of morality, and it can distinguish between a more and a less adequate recognition of these principles. There are not merely so many moral codes which can be described and whose vagaries can be traced to historical causes; there is a system of moral truth, as objective as all truth must be, which, and whose implications, we are interested in discovering; and from the point of view of this, the genuinely ethical problem, the sociological inquiry is simply beside the mark. It does not touch the questions to which we most desire answers.24


1 Principia Ethica, 8.

2 It should be added, however, that one, and an important one, of our duties is to cultivate in ourselves the sense of duty. But then this is the duty of cultivating in ourselves the sense of duty, and not of cultivating in ourselves, from the sense of duty, the sense of duty.

3 If any one doubts that it is, I beg him to refer to pp. 164-5, where I give reasons in support of the contention.

4 Cf. p. 1.

5 pp. 3-4.

6 Principles of Morals and Legislation, Ch. I, § 10.

7 ib. § 14. 10.

8 Methods of Ethics, ed. 7, 26 n.

9 Utilitarianism, copyright eds., 9.

10 Methods of Ethics, ed. 7, 32.

11 ib. 25-6.

12 I use this as a well-known way of referring to Professor Moore's view. 'Agathistic utilitarianism' would indicate more distinctly the difference between it and hedonistic utilitarianism.

13 p. 18.

14 p. 25.

15 pp. 146-8. Cf. also pp. 167, 169, 180-1.

16 p. 17.

17 p. 44, 54.

18 p. 43.

19 p. 173.

20 e.g. the evolutionary theory which identifies 'right' with 'conducive to life'.

21 Ethics, Chs. 3, 4.

22 pp. 80-104.

23 For this qualification cf. pp. 19-20.

24 For a lucid and up to a point appreciative account of the sociological school, and a penetrating criticism of its deficiencies, see ch. 2 of M. D. Parodi's Le Probleme Moral et la Pensee Contemporaine.