In the last two chapters I endeavoured to establish the validity of the belief in 'freedom,' in that common-sense interpretation of it which postulates genuinely 'open possibilities' for the human will: and thereby - since freedom thus conceived is incompatible with a Reality 'intelligible throughout' - to offer indirect confirmation of the hypothesis of the 'supra-rational' Reality. In this chapter I (The Epistemological Approach To The Supra-Rational Absolute. Section I. Introductory) shall attempt to follow a like course in the case of morality. I shall argue that there is equally good reason to regard the recognition of moral obligation or 'ought-ness' as a fundamental and untranscendible characteristic of human experience: and that since belief in the moral ought has implications incompatible with belief in Reality as intelligible throughout, we have here further confirmation of the 'supra-rational' hypothesis.
The incompatibility of the 'intelligible Reality' of Absolute Idealism with the moral point of view is a matter to which I have already adverted, in considering the relation of the Idealist doctrine of freedom to the problem of moral responsibility. But Idealists as a body are so extremely averse from admitting this implication of their general position that it will perhaps be well to devote a further few pages to the effort to drive the point home.
Let us remind ourselves, then, of the very elementary, but by no means therefore negligible, difficulties which the Idealist has to face in dealing with morality.
The crucial concept of morality is the 'ought.' This I hold to be indisputable. It is not enough for moral appraisement merely to be able to say that a person would be 'better' if he acted in such and such a way. We must be able to say that he ought to act in this way, and is the legitimate object of our censure if he doesn't. The whole vocabulary of morals in common usage implies the centrality of the idea of 'duty' or the 'ought.' Cut away this conception, and the very bottom falls out of what ordinary men mean by morality.
But the meaning of the moral ought is destroyed on the Idealist philosophy. No one can possibly attach meaning to the idea of 'ought,' either with reference to his own acts, or to those of other persons, if he believes that finite spirits are but channels through which the Absolute Spirit pours forth its being. If I believe that I 'ought' to do so and so, I must believe that it is in my power either to do or to forbear. And if, actually, I forbear to do it, my subsequent moral censure of myself gets all its point from my conviction that I could have done what I did not do. In short, the freedom of genuinely open possibilities is presupposed in the conception of moral obligation, and any philosophy which repudiates that freedom as a fiction, as Absolute Idealism must do, cannot by any verbal or intellectual legerdemain rebut the accusation that it has thereby made morality meaningless.
It is not to be denied, of course, that the word 'ought' may still have a meaning of some kind in a Determinist philosophy. But it is not a moral meaning. There will still be point in saying that the background of this picture 'ought' to be darker, and so on. Wherever you have in view a standard of propriety or perfection, the word 'ought' can fittingly be used with respect to conformity. But you obviously cannot, if you are a Determinist, mean that non-conformity to the standard is blameworthy; and that implication is inherent in the 'moral' ought. The distinction is quite clear, and it finds an interesting illustration in Bentham's well-known dictum that 'the word "ought" ought to be expunged from the vocabulary of morals'.
There is no doubt, however, of the extreme reluctance of the Idealist to confess his bankruptcy as a trustee of the moral values. We have already had occasion to observe the tenacity with which Bosanquet clings to the concept of moral responsibility, even while he is compelled, almost in so many words, to repudiate it. A similar alternation of thought may be detected in his treatment of that other ethical crux of Idealism, the nature of moral evil or the 'bad self.' What Bosanquet ought to say, as a consistent Monistic Idealist, is that the bad will is one in type with the good will, differing only in degree. And this is the view which he does perhaps most uniformly urge. But what he wants to say, as a man to whom it is as repellent as to anyone else to suppose vice to be other than the thing it is, is that good and evil are as vitally opposed in principle as white and black. And this, when the pall of metaphysic does not hang too heavily upon him, he permits himself to say too. It will be instructive, I think, to consider this conflict in Bosanquet's thought in some detail, for it illustrates excellently the kind of difficulty with which the Idealist is faced in his effort to be true at once to his metaphysical principles, and to the moral experience which he shares in common with his fellows.
The relevant passages occur for the most part in the chapter on 'Good and Evil' in The Value and Destiny of the Individual. In the course of that chapter Bosanquet gives us an analysis of the bad will which seems definitely to imply its ultimate antagonism of principle to the good will - an account, indeed, with which I, for my part, find myself in almost verbal agreement. But before many pages have passed the need emerges of exhibiting the place of moral evil in the Idealist Absolute, and Bosanquet, completely in the thrall of his false metaphysic, jettisons the antagonism to which the moral consciousness (and his own earlier argument) testifies, and makes moral evil identical in structure with moral good.