Ethics by P.H Nowell-Smith

This is the first of my new series of posts containing selected extracts and quotes from books I’ve been reading.

The topics will fall within the general range of subjects I cover on this blog, from science based topics to philosophy and environment.

All my posts of this nature come with the exhortation that a better understanding of the extracts and the subjects of these books can only be achieved by reading the book, not by relying solely on the parts I’ve picked out as being, in my opinion, the most notable or instructive parts.

Today’s post covers “Ethics” by P.H Nowell-Smith published in 1954.

In brackets I’ve provided the context of the quotes and extracts that follow it, but have attempted to provide extracts that explain the context within the extract itself.

Ethics – P.H.Nowell-Smith – Pelican, 1954

(On theoretical ethics)

“The central phenomenon of ethics is, then, the moral judgement or, as Broad also calls it, the “opinion that something is right or wrong”. It should be noticed from the start that moral judgements are said to be, not emotional reactions or attitudes or expressions of approval and disapproval, but opinions.” Pg 26

“The intuitionists are, in fact, trying to combine in one form of judgement two assets, objectivity and relative incorrigibility. But these cannot be combined since the objective-subjective contrast loses its point if objective judgements are made relatively incorrigible. They use the language of ‘really is’; but the test that they apply to discover whether something really is right or wrong is the test of immediate insight, which is analogous to the test for ‘looks’ and ‘feels’”. Pg 58

(On the logic of Sentences and Arguments)

“Phrases such as ‘speaking offhand…’, ‘I don’t really know but…’, and ‘I should be inclined to say that…’ are used by scrupulous persons to warn the hearer that the speaker has not got what seem to him good reasons for his statement. But unless one of these guarding phrases is used we are entitled to believe that the speaker believes himself to have good reasons for his statement and we soon learn to mistrust people who habitually infringe this rule”. Pg 82

(On reasons for choosing)

“There is an air of tautology about ‘I laughed because it was amusing’, ‘I ran away because it was terrifying’ and ‘I remonstrated because it was an objectionable proposal’ which is absent from explanations in terms of statements of fact. But in spite of this A-sentences do not give complete explanations. This is partly because the explanatory force is inversely proportional to the obviousness of the tautology. ‘I objected because it was objectionable’ implies that I had some reasons for objecting but does not even begin to say what they were.” Pg 119

We often explain both why we did something and why we intend to do something by saying that it is fitting or appropriate to a situation or that it is in accordance with a moral rule. But these explanations are only logically complete if they contextually imply a pro-attitude to doing what is fitting or to obeying the rule; and this, in practice, they always do. But a part of an explanation that is so obvious that it can in practice be left out must not, on that account, be assumed to be unnecessary.” Pg 121

(On egoism and hedonmism)

“To be selfish is not to do what one wants to do or enjoys doing, but to be hostile or indifferent to the welfare of others. It comes out in two ways. (a) A man whose dominant desires were for his own pleasures (in the ordinary, not the philosopher’s sense) and who seldom or never wanted to do good to others would be a selfish man. (b) A man who does what he wants to do or what he likes,, when he does it at the expense of others, is a selfish man, even if what he does is not in itself selfish.” Pg 143

(In the context of G-words – words that imply not merely that the relevant person is likely to have a certain reaction, but that he ought to have it)

“That is not to say that we do not use G-words or ‘ought’ when making up our minds what to do, but that when we so use them we are, as it were, advising, exhorting, or commanding ourselves. If a man prefers one thing to another there is no temptation to represent the situation as one in which two people participate; but we do this quite naturally when a man tells himself that he ought to do something. It is an important fact that, while the personification of Desires is always strained and artificial, it has always seemed quite natural to represent Conscience as a little voice inside me that tells me what I ought to do.” Pg 151

(On advising and exhortation)

“This brings out one general difference between A- and G-sentences. Since the latter belong par excellence to the realm of choosing, advising, and exhorting and since the logic of these activities is such that sentences used to play a part in them must have a pro- or a con-force, G-sentences are always explicitly for or against something. A-sentences, on the other hand, are neutral unless the context shows which force they have. It may not be clear, for example, whether ‘It’s a dangerous (or onerous or responsible) post’ constitutes advice or or against; but ‘it’s a post worth having’ is not so ambiguous.’ Pg 155

‘The Persuasive Theory is an incorrect account of the use of moral language; but it enshrines an important truth. Advising is something that we choose to do and we must, therefore, have some reason for doing it. This reason may be a desire to persuade someone to do something and a man who gives advice (unless he gives it ironically) must, as we have seen, hope that it will be taken. This does not mean, however, that advice can never be disinterested. A man who advises another on the choice of a career may be concerned solely for the welfare of the recipient of his advice, and the farther who gives death-bed advice to his son can hardly hope to gain by it. The Persuasive Theory, but implying that man who gives advice must have an ulterior motive, makes an unfortunate and unnecessary concession to the doctrine that all human action is necessarily selfish.” Pg 157-8

(On exhortation – rhetoric, propaganda or suggestion – technique used by evangelical preachers on emotional congregations and advertisers who instil desires into their victims by suggesting that they already have them)

“It is important to notice that this is a secondary use of language, parasitic on genuine advice; and this fact is fatal to the ‘Persuasive’ Theory of moral language. A man can only learn to seek, accept, and reject advice if, in the majority of cases, accepting the advice does in fact lead to the result he himself desires. … Unless moral words had first been used in a way which connects them with our own interests – whether these be selfish or unselfish – we could never have come to be persuaded or dissuaded by their use and they could not act, as they sometimes do, as levers with which to manipulate the conduct of others”. Pg 158-9

“To tell someone that something is the best thing for him to do is to advise him to do it, but not irresponsibly. The speaker implies that he has good reasons for his advice, that he knows what the problem is and that his advice is relevant. The same predictive and causal elements are present as in the case of A-sentences; and advice may, as before, be given disingenuously, improperly, mistakenly, or unfortunately if one or other of the contextual implications is absent.” Pg 162-3

(On appraising and what we consider good)

“But in many cases the criteria now used are connected to natural criteria only through a long process of change and have become modified to such an extent that their original connexion with natural pro-attitudes has been entirely lost. And in such cases it often happens that we do not use the criteria we do because people have the pro-attitudes they have, but we have the pro-attitudes we have because the criteria are what they are. It may be that on one can now remember exactly why certain criteria were originally chosen to be the standards of judging something to be good or bad of its kind and that people are now prepared to admire, praise, and pat highly for objects because the conform to the accepted criteria, rather than accepting the criteria as ‘proper’ ones because, under them, the things that they admire rate highly. Taste is dictated by fashion, not fashion by taste.” Pg 173

“Sentiments, as Hume noticed, seem to vary in rough proportion to the propinquity of their objects. We are not moved by the iniquity or remote historical characters as we are by those closer to us; and we feel more approval for and sympathy with those near to us than with those who are more remote. Yet our moral judgements do not vary in the same way.” Pg 176

“…moral appraisals must be universal. Anyone who makes a moral appraisal even of a remote character must be willing to apply the same criteria universally. And it follows from this that he must be willing to apply them in practical contexts. If I am not prepared to condemn anyone whose behaviour is like that of Verres in all relevant respects, then, in calling Verres a villain, I am not making a genuine moral judgement; and the relevant respects are all of an empirical, objective kind.” Pg 177

“Ethical Naturalism is the attempt to trace logical connexions between moral appraisals and the actual pro- and con-attitudes of men, their desires and aversions, hopes and fears, joys and sorrows. One-track naturalistic theories always fail to do justice to the complexity both of the facts and of the logical connexion, since they suggest that there is only one thing towards which men have a pro-attitude, pleasure, or that all pro-attitudes are desires. And these theories are both psychologically and logically misleading.” Pg 181

“There is one peculiarity which right’ shares with ‘good’ and ‘ought’ and with no other words. Except in ironical or other secondary uses it is always a pro-word. We saw that while A-words must always carry a pro-force when used in the contexts of choosing and advising, they do not always carry the same force, and we have to gather whether they are pro- or con-words from the context. This is never the case with ‘right’. Some words that are akin to ‘right’, such as ‘just’, ‘fair’, and ‘honourable’, are almost always pro-words, but they admit of exceptions. They imply a code of rules but they could be used in cases where we want to advise a man to disobey the code. We might think, for example, that this was a case in which justice should give way to mercy and we should then say: “It would be the just thing to do; but in this case I don’t think you ought to do it”. But the word ‘right’ is seldom, if ever, used in this way.” Pg 189-90

“But we use ‘you ought’ sentences precisely when we are not in apposition to issue orders; and this fact and the fact that these sentences must be backed by reasons provide an important clue to their logic. Although ‘advice’ is far too weak a word for many ‘you ought’ sentences, their logic in primary cases is always that of advising, never that of commanding. For they are addressed to a rational agent as solutions to this problem of choice and, in consequence, they imply a pro-attitude on the part of the recipient. The author of a command, on the other hand, is not logically bound to be concerned with the pro- and con-attitudes of his subordinates, though, of course, he may be.

It is for this reason also that it is a mistake to define moral ‘oughts’ in terms of God’s commands or ‘God’s will’. For the mere fact that a command has been issued by a competent authority, even by Go, is not a logically good reason for obeying it. …We do in practice often appeal to the existence of a command in backing up an ought-sentence, in the same sort of way that we appeal to the existence of a rule; but this procedure contextually implies a general pro-attitude on the part of the recipient towards obeying the commands of that authority, as such” Pg 192

(On differences of opinion about whether a course of action ought to be taken)

“It might seem that this situation is still analogous to a dispute about an empirical matter. For if Jones says “It’s a dog” and Smith say “No, it isn’t”, they can both be right in the sense that each has used the correct form of words to express what he intended to say, but they cannot both be right in the sense of saying what is true. But, as we have seen, there is in empirical matters a test of truth which is independent of the beliefs of the speaker, namely the correspondence with the facts, so that in these cases there is a point to the distinction the two senses of ‘right’. But if the dispute is a moral one there is no test of this kind.” Pg 194-5

“The theory that men can only aim at their own happiness is plausible only if ‘happiness’ is covertly used as a general word covering ‘whatever men aim at’. Since this conflicts flagrantly with its normal use it is not surprising that some teleologists have slipped into covert egoism.

Gay is not the only or the best known philosopher to have made this mistake; Mill also seems, at time, to have supposed that ‘right’ means ‘conducive  to the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and Moore expressly says that “the assertion ‘I am morally bound to perform this action’ is identical with the assertion ‘This action will produce the greatest happiness of the greatest possible amount of good in the Universe’.”, although neither Mill nor Moor slips into egoism”. Pg 222

(On the purpose of moral rules)

“(i) Duties of beneficence. There are two reasons why beneficence should be considered a duty. In the first place benevolence is one of our natural pro-attitudes. It is one that conflicts with other pro-attitudes and it is one that tends to be stronger in our calmer and more reflective moments. If to do good to others is one of a man’s dominant aims he has a good reason for making this type of conduct a duty; for if he does so his desire to do good to others will now be backed up by his desire to do his duty, which is an exceedingly powerful motive. In this way he is more likely to try to do good to others even at moments when he does not much want to do so, and so come to fulfil his dominant aim more completely than he would if he did not adopt this rule.” Pg 231

(On conscientiousness)

“Aristotle held that a man was not really good unless he enjoyed doing what is good, and I am inclined to agree. The sense of duty is a useful device for helping men to do what a really good man would do without a sense of duty; and since none of us belongs to the class of ‘really good men’ in this sense, it is a motive that should be fostered in all of us. But it plays little part in the lives of the best men and could play none at all in the lives of saints. They act on good moral principles, but not from the sense of duty; for they do what they do for its own sake and not for the sake of duty.” Pg 259

(On the paradox of representing all motives other than the sense of duty as ‘forces’ which oblige me to act as I do, since this entails that I do not act freely when I do what I want to do)

“There can be no such thing as intentional or even voluntary wrong-doing, and therefore no such thing as just blame or punishment. In the mouth of a Socrates or a Spinoza there would be nothing strange about this conclusion; for Socrates though no wrong-doing could be voluntary and was puzzled to know how any man could deserve blame, and Spinoza was prepared to push the theory to its inevitable conclusion and say that blame is never justified.. A wise man tries to understand why men behave as they do; only a fool blames.

But the theory of the self-propelling conscience is often found in conjunction with the view that conscientiousness is the only virtue and acting against one’s conscience the only vice. And it is this combination that is paradoxical, since on this theory a conscientious action is the only type of free action, all actions prompted by desire being unfree.” Pg 264

(On freedom and Responsibility)

“For in the great majority of cases of moral difficulty what is difficult  is not to decide to do what one knows one ought to do, but to decide what one ought to do. This sort of difficulty arises in three main types of case. (I) A humble and unimaginative person who accepts a customary code of morals without much question may find that two rules conflict; the voice of conscience is in this case ambiguous. (ii) A more self-confident, imaginative, and reflective person may wonder whether he ought, in the case before him, to do what the customary rule enjoins. He knows very well what the rule enjoins; but what prompts him to depart from it is no “part of his desiring nature”, but a suspician that the rule is one that, in this particular case, he ought not to follow. (iii) A man of fixed moral principles (whether or not they are those customarily adopted) may find himself in a radically new situation that is not catered for in his code. What is he to do? It is here, if anywhere, that the idea of an unpredictable ‘creative’ choice seems to make sense. He takes a leap in the dark, but just because it is a leap in the dark I doubt if we should be inclined to blame him if he leapt in what turned out to be the wrong direction.

Men who belong to a generation for whom the questioning of accepted principles has been no mere academic exercise and who have found themselves faced with momentous choices in situation not covered by their traditional rules will be less likely than their father perhaps were to suppose that the only sort of moral difficulty is that of resisting temptation.” Pg 288-9

“And if, as some suggest, desires are internal forces which operate on the will, do they exculpate in the way in which external forces do? The problem of free will is puzzling just because it seems impossible, without indulging in sheer dogmatism, to know just where to stop treating desires as ‘compelling forces’.” Pg 291

“If I regard something as immoral, then, however trivial it may be and however great may be the non-moral advantages of doing it, I cannot debate with myself whether I ought to do it; and we discover what our own moral principles are very often by putting this sort of question to ourselves.” Pg 308

“A principle is not usually called a moral one unless the person who adopts it is prepared to apply it universally. If a man says that he does something as a matter of principle, he cannot (logically) make exceptions unless another moral principle is involved. However narrow in scope it may be, a moral principle must be applied to all cases that are alike in all relevant respects.” Pg 309

“What sort of principles a man adopts will, in the end, depend on his vision of the Good Life, his conception of the sort of world that he desires, so far as it rests with him, to create. Indeed his moral principles just are this conception. The conception can be altered; perhaps he meets someone whose character, conduct, or arguments reveal to him new virtues that he had never even contemplated; or he may do something uncharacteristic and against his principles without choosing to do it and, in doing it, discover how good it is. Moral values, like other values, are sometime discovered accidentally. But the one thing he cannot do is to try to alter his conception of the Good Life; for it is ultimately by reference to this conception that all his choices are made. And the fact that he cannot choose to alter this conception neither shields him from blame nor disqualifies him from admiration.” Pg 313-4


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