How, in the first place, does this theory get itself suggested? It is certainly not the natural report of introspective observation. Moreover, the moral judgments in literature and practical life are, in general, based on the assumption of the contrary, as are, of course, society's penal institutions also.1 It arises, I think, from the adoption of a 'self-realisation' theory of ethics, for which 'better' means 'better for self.' This type of ethical theory is itself dependent upon the psychological doctrine that every deliberate act of choice aims at something conceived to be a 'good' for the agent. For if all willing is thus directed to a personal good, it does not seem possible to define the moral ideal, the object of the best will, save in some such terms as true personal good. Now when this, or some similar ethical position is arrived at, the phrasing 'knowing the better and choosing the worse' must be interpreted as 'knowing what is better for oneself, a truer personal good, and choosing what is worse for oneself, a less true personal good.' But when the phrase takes this form, there do arise understandable doubts as to whether it can represent any actual psychical reality. Why should a rational being deliberately choose what he knows to be less good for himself? The apparently paradoxical character of such an act suggests the advisability of returning to make a closer examination of the phenomena of choice with a view to discovering whether what appear, prima facie, to be 'acts of incontinence' may not be capable of a different construction - one more in accord with what we should expect of a rational being.
1 There are indications that the penal institutions of some future societies may not be based on this assumption. But if they are not, then they will not really be 'penal' institutions. To talk of 'punishing' where you do not admit 'blameworthiness' is just nonsense. Prisons will be quite literally 'Houses of Correction,' and nothing more, under the new assumption. The drift of contemporary opinion in this direction, under the influence of the 'New Psychology,' is, I think, deeply to be deplored. If this book did something to counteract it, I could accept with tranquillity the rejection of almost everything else for which I have argued.
Since I for my part accept the substance of the 'self-realisation' psychology, the problem is one which it is not possible here to ignore. Looking at the facts with the initial bias which such a psychology induces, there is no doubt, I think, that there is a strong prima facie case for the doctrine of Socrates.
Now what the doctrine has to do to establish itself is, of course, to explain intelligibly how it is that people often believe that they know and approve the better and choose the worse, if in fact they are incapable of such a choice. There is no doubt that the ordinary man imagines, after many of his acts, that a, the course which he rejected, was clearly conceived by him at the moment of choice to be 'better' than b, the course which he adopted. And only on this account does he experience 'remorse.' The Socratic doctrine has to make it plain that he is, in so believing, the victim of self-deception.
One explanation of this self-deception would run as follows. Let us suppose a, the rejected course, to be a component of the agent's standing ideal of the better. It is part of his general habit of mind to think of it as better than b. But that general habit of mind is not formed in response to all varieties of concrete practical situations. Actually, in this concrete practical situation, the attractiveness of b is rendered so peculiarly powerful that at the moment of the choice it supplants a as the 'better.' But after the act, the agent automatically relapses into his 'general habit of mind' with regard to the relations of a and b. Considering them, as he does now, in abstraction from the vividness of the concrete situation, he is sure that he thinks a better than bt and supposes that he always thinks a better than b. And this induces in him the belief that he has acted contrary to what he believed to be best, and brings about in him the emotion of remorse. But the truth is that if he could imaginatively reconstruct the competing alternatives in the concrete setting of the practical situation, he would realise that b, with all its attendant details - perhaps, if it is a round of golf, the fineness of the morning, a new brassie to handsel, the availability of a congenial partner, and so on - might well have appeared a greater good to him than a. His self-deception arises, in short, from too abstract a consideration of alternatives whose competition was in a highly concrete complex.
In some situations a slight variation of this account would be demanded. There are some occasions - for example when a man gives way to a 'dope' which he knows is rapidly undermining his whole mental, physical, and moral being - with respect to which the agent cannot possibly bring himself to suppose, when he thinks of the act in retrospect, that he could ever have believed b, indulgence in the drug, to be better than a, abstention from it, if the alternatives were ever before his mind at all. The explanation of incontinence in such cases must be sought in 'gusts of passion.' The thought of the drug raises a craving so overwhelming that all else is swept from the mind, and 'a' simply does not present itself. At the actual moment of choice, then, a did not appear as the 'better,' because it did not appear at all.