The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong/Book reviews/International Journal of Ethics

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Review of The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong
by George Edward Moore
International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Oct., 1903): pp. 115-123.
The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong. By Franz Brentano. English translation by Cecil Hague, Formerly Lector at Prague University, with a Biographical Note. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., Ltd. 1902. Pp. xiv, 125.

This is a far better discussion of the most fundamental principles of Ethics than any others with which I am acquainted. Brentano himself is fully conscious that he has made a very great advance in the theory of Ethics. “No one,” he says, “has determined the principles of ethics as, on the basis of new analysis, I have found it necessary to determine them” (p. viii); and his confidence both in the originality and in the value of his own work is completely justified. In almost all points in which he differs from any of the great historical systems, he is in the right; and he differs with regard to the most fundamental points of Moral Philosophy. Of all previous moralists, Sidgwick alone is in any respect superior to him; and Sidgwick was never clearly aware of the wide and important bearings of his discovery in this one respect. Brentano is both clearer and more profound; and he avoids Sidgwick’s two fundamental errors. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of his work.

His main proposition is that what we know, when we know that a thing is good in itself, is that the feeling of love towards that thing (or pleasure in that thing) is “right” (richtig). Similarly, that a thing is bad, is merely another way of saying that hatred of that thing would be “right.”

The great merit of this view over all except Sidgwick’s is its recognition that all truths of the form “This is good in itself” are logically independent of any truth about what exists. No ethical proposition of this form is such that, if a certain thing exists, it is true, whereas, if that thing does not exist, it is false. All such ethical truths are true, whatever the nature of the world may be. Hence, in particular, none of them are either identical with any subjective proposition (e.g. “So-and-so has this feeling or desire or cognition”) or such that, if it be true, any subjective proposition whatever need be true. Thus Brentano recognizes fully the objectivity of this fundamental class of ethical judgments. “No one,” he says, “[except Herbart] has so radically and completely broken with the subjective view of ethics” (p. ix).

Nevertheless Brentano is wrong in supposing that the conception “rightly loved” or “worthy of love” is the fundamental ethical concept which we mean by “good in itself.” Sidgwick was right in holding that that concept is unanalyzable; and it is, in fact, the concept which Brentano denotes by the word “right,” when he says that a thing is good in itself, if the love of it would be right. Brentano recognizes two very important concepts when he recognizes both the concept of what it is right to love and of the rightness which belongs to love of such things; and the question which of these is properly denoted by the words good in itself might seem to be merely a verbal question. But it is not a merely verbal question, if, as Brentano rightly does, we take what is good in itself in the highest possible degree to be that of which it is our duty to promote the existence. For whereas the degree in which a thing possesses the quality which he calls “right” must be taken into account in considering what is that greatest possible good which it is our duty to effect, the degree in which things are “worthy to be loved” is not a measure of our duty to effect their existence. It is certain that many things, e.g., inanimate beautiful objects, possess the quality of being worthy to be loved, in a higher degree than they possess that of “rightness;” it may even be doubted whether they possess the latter at all. And it is our duty to effect that which is the most “right” possible, not that which is most worthy to be loved. Though therefore we can agree with Brentano that everything which is good in itself is worthy to be loved, we cannot agree that everything which is worthy to be loved is good.

Brentano makes a similar mistake with regard to the definition of “true” in the sense in which that word is applied to the object of a belief. He says that, just as an object is good, if it be rightly loved, so it is true if it be rightly believed. The definition of truth has the same rare merit as the definition of good, namely, that it is objective. But that it is false appears to be plain from the fact that we can raise the question whether it is “right” to believe everything that is true: that is to say, we are immediately aware that “true” and “rightly believed” are two distinct concepts, one of which, “true,” is an unanalyzable property belonging to some objects of belief. But it is important to raise a second question with regard to this definition of “true.” Is the “rightness” which Brentano attributes to belief in the true the same quality which he attributes to love of the good, or is it not? He speaks of “right” love as if it were merely analogous to “right” belief (p. 19); and this suggests that he thinks the “rightness” is not the same quality in the two cases. In that case he is calling two different unanalyzable qualities by the same name; and that he should not have expressly noticed whether he is doing so or not, illustrates the insufficient attention which he has given to the question what he means by “rightly loved”—a defect in his inquiry, which will be illustrated again later, and which will help to explain his failure to perceive that this quality which he denotes by “rightness,” and not the “rightly loved,” is the fundamental ethical concept properly denoted by “good in itself.” In fact, I am unable to perceive that there is any unanalysable quality which we attribute to belief in the true except the very one which we attribute to love of what is worthy to be loved. In other words, Brentano’s judgment that belief in the true is “right” is a judgment that belief in the true is always good in itself—a proposition which does not seem to be true. If it is not true, it follows not only that “true” does not mean “rightly believed,” but also that just as what it is good to love is not always itself good, so, it is not always good to believe what is true. The incorrectness of this definition of “true” is further proved by the fact that, as will be shown, the quality meant by “rightness” has degrees, whereas, as Brentano himself rightly maintains, no one thing is more true than another (p. 23).

Another doctrine of Brentano’s also illustrates the insufficient attention which he has paid to the nature of that “rightness” the reference to which constitutes the merit of his definitions of good and true. His belief in this doctrine seems indeed to be the main cause why he has given so little attention to the nature of this fundamental concept. It is the doctrine which explains why he has given to this inquiry the unfortunate title of an inquiry into “The Origin of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong.” Brentano holds, namely, that (as Hume thought) all our conceptions are derived from “concrete impressions”—impressions, which, he says, are either “of physical” or “of psychical content” (p. 12). This doctrine may be perfectly true in one sense; but in the sense naturally conveyed by the words it includes a most important error. Obviously the conception of “good,” as Brentano defines it, cannot be derived merely from the experience of loving, but only from that of “right loving”—from the perception of the rightness of a love: its origin cannot be merely the perception of a love which is right, but in which this quality is not perceived, it can only be a perception in which it is itself contained. But whereas the experience of loving has all the marks which are suggested by calling it a “concrete impression of psychical content,” the “experience of right loving”—i.e., the perception of the rightness of a love—has not. The quality of “rightness” is not a psychical content and the perception of it is not an impression in the ordinary sense of these words. A single mark is sufficient to distinguish it: by a “psychical content” we always mean at least an existent, and by “impression” the cognition of an existent, and “rightness” is not an existent. Brentano is certainly not sufficiently attentive to this distinction between the experience of loving and the experience of right loving. He says he belongs to the “empirical school” (p. 8); and he here shows himself to be under the influence of empiricism, in a sense in which empiricism is certainly erroneous.

The same inattention to the nature of the quality which he means by “rightness” is further shown in the account Brentano gives of our knowledge that one thing is better than another. His first suggestion is that since “good” means “worthy to be loved,” “better” must mean “worthy of more love” (p. 21). It does not seem to have occurred to him that it must mean “more worthy of love,” that is to say, his attention is directed only to that element of his definition, which is a “concrete psychical content,” namely the love, not to the more important element “rightness,” which is not. In asserting that a thing is rightly loved with a greater love, you do not assert that it posseses the quality of being rightly loved in any higher degree than what is rightly loved with a less love; and hence if good means rightly loved, you do not assert that it is better. In short, even on Brentano’s definition, if anything is to be better than another, that can only be because the quality which he means by “rightness” has degrees—a point which he has entirely failed to observe, and which proves that “true” cannot mean “rightly believed.” The supposition that, if “good” means “worthy of love,” “better” means “worthy of more love,” does in fact derive most of its plausibility from an ambiguity in the latter expression, in virtue of which it denotes not merely that a greater and a less love are each of them “right,” but that each of them is “more right” than some other love. If we say that one thing is worthy of more love than another, these words naturally convey the meanings that to love these things with the different amounts of love in question is “more right” than to love them both with the same amount: we do not merely convey the assurance that to love each with the amount of love in question is “right,” in a sense in which this assurance does not exclude the supposition that to love either of them with any other amount would also be equally “right.” And that Brentano is actually using the expression “worthy of more love,” in the sense in which to say that one thing is worthy of more love than another is to say that one love is more right than another, is shown by the reason he gives for denying that the better is worthy of more love (for, after all, he does deny it). His reason is (p. 22) that nothing which is really good can be loved too much. And this proposition obviously only implies that no one thing is worthy of less love than another, because it asserts that a greater love of a thing is in no case less right than a less love of the same thing. Accordingly, whether this proposition is true or false (and it seems to be false), it makes an assertion not only about degrees of love, but also about degrees of rightness.

But Brentano, we have said, rejects the view that “better” means “worthy of more love,” except, he says, “in quite another sense” (p. 22). This “other sense” is that “better” means “object of a right preference.” But what is meant by a “right preference”? If, as is usual, we mean by “preference” a feeling, it is obviously a feeling only towards the thing preferred, not towards the thing which is not preferred. When we say that we prefer one thing to another we usually mean either (1) that we like the one more than we like the other, or (2) that we choose the one and do not choose the other: there is no such thing as a single feeling, called “preference,” directed to both the things. But in case (1) to know that a thing is “rightly” preferred, is only to know that it is worthy of the greater love which it receives, not that the other thing is only worthy of less; and in case (2) to know that it is “rightly” chosen is again only to know that this choice is positively “right,” not that the other choice is not also and equally “right:” in neither case does the “rightness” of the preference allow any inference as to the relative value of what is not preferred. Such an inference is only possible, if by saying that the preference is “right,” we mean that the liking or choice of the thing preferred is “more right” than the alternative?

The above seem to be the most important points in Brentano’s theory concerning the nature of intrinsic value and intrinsic superiority. As regards intrinsic value, his theory has the almost unique merit that it defines “good in itself,” not only as an objective concept, but as containing that very concept which is in fact properly denoted by the words: but it is defective in that the complex property which he takes to be the required definition is not merely different from the simple property which is the true definition, but has not even the same extension; “worthiness to be loved” is not even a correct criterion of intrinsic value. As regards intrinsic superiority his theory has an additional defect: he does not clearly recognize that to know one thing to be better than another must be to know that it has in a higher degree the very property which we mean by “good in itself.”

If now we pass to his views on the question, “What things are good in themselves, and in what degrees?” we find that they have corresponding merits and defects. He cannot be too highly praised for insisting that, not one thing only, but very many different things have intrinsic value; and, in particular, for emphasizing the value of the immense variety of different states which belong to the class “enjoyment of things worthy to be enjoyed” or “right loves.” These constitute, in fact, by far the greater part of considerable goods: and Brentano does recognize that they are all good, and that, if they are so, mere pleasure or mere knowledge cannot be the sole goods. But his views have the serious defect that he ascribes value to two classes of things which have little or no value—to things which are, in both cases, necessary constituents of valuable wholes, but which seem nevertheless to have no value in themselves. The first class consists of things which his definition of “good” binds him to consider good—things which are really worthy of love: it is certainly good to love all such things, but only some of them are also good themselves; as an example of those which are not, I have already mentioned inanimate beautiful objects. As examples of the second class of things to which he certainly ascribes more value than they possess, we may take pleasure and knowledge. This error is even more grave than the last, since it compels him to ascribe value to things which are not merely indifferent but positively bad; and it follows not from his definition of “good” but from a principle which I have not yet mentioned. This principle is that no one thing is better than another, unless it contains a greater number of good or a less number of bad parts. In this book, indeed, Brentano is even inclined to maintain that all judgments of intrinsic superiority are purely analytic—that “better” merely means “having a greater number of good parts.” But the translator tells us, in the Appendix, that he has now definitely abandoned this view: he now recognizes “that it is by no means evident from analysis that one good plus another is preferable to each of these goods taken singly” (p. 122, note). We are not told, however, that Brentano has also abandoned the views with which we are now concerned—the views that, as a matter of fact, not only are two good things always better than one of them, but also that no one thing is better than another unless it contains more good parts. From the second of these principles it would follow that all good things, which are not composed of good parts, are equally good; and also that any quantity of pleasure is one such good thing. For it is certainly true that a greater pleasure in a very beautiful thing is sometimes better than a less pleasure in the same; and, this being so, it follows from Brentano’s principle, that what differentiates the former from the latter—namely the excess of pleasure—is good in itself. And similarly it is certain that one state may be better than another, where it only differs from that other in containing more knowledge; and hence it would also follow that some knowledge, at all events, was good in itself. But the principle from which these results follow is certainly false: that it is an error, and a grave one, may be shown by taking a case in which it would prove to be good what is in fact positively bad in a high degree. For Brentano is bound to hold that a very great pleasure in what is wholly bad, but not very bad, is not merely better than a less pleasure in the same, but positively good. He must even, if the bad thing be purely imaginary, pronounce it to be better than a less pleasure in an imaginary thing which is wholly good. In fact, however, a great pleasure in what is bad seems certainly to be both a great positive evil and worse than a less pleasure in the same. It follows that one thing may be better or worse than another, even though it does not contain more good or bad parts respectively; and hence that the facts admitted above give us no reason for pronouncing either pleasure or knowledge to be good in themselves. It does not follow, indeed, that pleasure is not good in itself; only, if it is good, we must also dispute the principle that two good things are always better than one of them—must deny, at least, that the value of the whole formed by them is always equal to the sum of the values of its parts.

The third great excellence in Brentano’s Ethics is his clear recognition of the distinction between what is merely a means to good and what is good in itself, and of the fact that the one supreme rule of Practical Ethics is that we ought always to do that which will cause the whole state of the Universe to have as much intrinsic value as possible—that for an action to be “right” in the ordinary sense of the word, it is both sufficient and necessary that it should be a means to this result. He states the consequences of this principle very clearly in several points in which they are frequently overlooked. In particular, the text of the book, which consists of a lecture delivered before the Vienna Law Society in 1889, under the title “The Natural Sanction for Law and Morality,” is arranged with a view to showing, as against the relativistic views of Ihering, that, although there is no “natural law,” in the sense of laws of which the knowledge is either “innate” or universal, the above principle is a “natural moral law” in the sense that it is universally valid; and that all positive laws have “natural sanction” or are truly binding, if, and only if, their observance does have the best possible results.

The book consists of this lecture, together with a number of notes, of much greater bulk than the text, and two Appendices, one of a review of “Miklovich on Subjectless Propositions,” which first appeared as a feuilleton in the Vienna Evening Post, and the other a brief account, by the translator, of Brentano’s life and philosophical achievements. The longest note, which consists of a criticism on Sigwart’s theory of judgment, is, like the Appendix on Miklovich and some other long notes, relevant to the subject of the lecture only in that it serves to confirm Brentano’s theory of judgment and of the analogy between belief in the true and love of the good. Many notes, again, are directly historical. Nevertheless, owing to Brentano’s extraordinary clearness with regard to the precise relevance of all he says, the contents of the book are far more easy to grasp than is usual with books of the most regular form: there seems no reason to wish that he had arranged his matter differently.

The translation is not well done; and it should be noticed that the cross-references are often utterly wrong, e.g., on p. 47, where we are referred to note 27, p. 83 sub., the reference should apparently be to p. 73 sub.; on p. 82, for note 26, p. 77 read p. 71; on p. 87, for note 43, p. 99 read note 44, p. 92; on p. 89, for note 31, p. 91 read note 32, p. 85; and in the notes (pp. 87-90), the notes numbered 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42 should be numbered respectively 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43.

Trinity College, Cambridge.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1958, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.