THE object of this volume is not the construction of a system of Moral Philosophy. It is very far from attempting either an exhaustive or a systematic treatment of ethical questions. Nor is the Author so much as prepared to define the sphere of Moral Philosophy, to say what does fall within it and what does not.
The writer’s object in this work has been mainly critical. He sees that ethical theories rest in the end on preconceptions metaphysical and psychological. He believes that many of the fundamental ideas now current, especially in England, are confused or even false; and he has endeavoured, by the correction of some of these, at least to remove what seem obstacles to the apprehension of moral facts. These Essays are a critical discussion of some leading questions in Ethics, and are so far connected that, for the most part, they must be read in the order in which they stand.
The writer knows how much is demanded by his task. It demands an acquaintance with the facts of the world which he does not possess; and it demands that clearness of view on the main conceptions which govern our thoughts, which comes, if at all, to the finished student of metaphysic. The reader must not expect this either.
These Essays may be dogmatic and one-sided. They were produced and are published because the writer knows no English moral philosophy which does not, rightly or wrongly, seem to him to be at least as one-sided and even more dogmatic. Whatever they may be, if they bring any fresh element to the chaos of our philosophical literature they will be of use to the student.
But the ideas brought forward in these pages are not new. The source of every argument might in most cases have been given, and the reader referred to the works of one or two great men; and it is because the substance of the whole is not original that the writer has made scarcely any acknowledgments in detail. He has come forward not because what he has to say is new, but because our literature compels the belief that to the larger part of our philosophical public, and even of our philosophers, a great deal of it must be both novel and necessary.
This must be his excuse if the polemical part of his work (and too much is polemical) appears anywhere wanting in respect towards authors of repute and merit. But he thinks that he has nowhere overstepped the fair limits of controversy, a controversy into which he never would have ventured, were it not too much the fashion to take no account of views which are now more than half a century old, and the neglect of which he is convinced has done much to preclude the possibility of a solution.