It is not possible, nor perhaps desirable, to expound in full detail here the psychology of conation which underlies Green's account of the moral principle. But one prominent doctrine in that psychology it is absolutely necessary that I should state and defend at length: because, in the first place, its acceptance is of basic importance to the position which I am to try to make good here; and because, in the second place, it has called forth far more hostile criticism than any other of Green's psychological tenets - being, indeed, very largely responsible for the disrepute in which at the present day his psychology is commonly held. The offending doctrine (which is common to almost all Idealists) is that which makes the object of desire always a 'conceived personal good of the agent'.
How, first of all, is this formula arrived at? There is nothing very mysterious about the procedure, despite the critics' professions of inability to see any grounds for the result. The general method is one of 'self-reflection,'1 by the very nature of the case. For it is a phenomenon of the inner life, desire as a psychical experience, that we are interested to understand. But, more in particular, the procedure adopted and recommended by the Idealist consists in the endeavour to make clear to oneself the basis of the distinction which we feel to exist between the experience we call 'impulse' or 'appetite' and the experience we call 'desire.' In each of these experiences we have inclination directed to an object. But, it is pointed out, we certainly do distinguish between them. The Idealist's contention is (and I believe him to be right), that if we carry out our introspective analysis with due care we shall see that what distinguishes impulse from desire is just that in impulse there is lacking any recognition of the object as a 'good,' as something which the self wants. The object in 'impulse' is, as it were, merely object. Or, as we might put it (using the expression which Butler has constantly, but mistakenly, been applauded for applying to desire), impulse 'terminates upon its object' - whereas in all desire there is present the reference of the object to the needs of the subject self.
1 This general method is inevitable, but Green is always careful to insist that we must pursue it with great circumspection, guarding ourselves against arbitrary interpretations by 'constant reference to the expression of that [inner] experience which is embodied, so to speak, in the habitual phraseology of men, in literature, and in the institutions of family and political life.' (Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 105).
The point comes out perhaps even more clearly in relation to action. We all distinguish off 'instinctive' or 'impulsive' action from action preceded by desire for the object. And only the latter do we regard as strictly 'motivated' action. Now if we try to make clear to ourselves what it is that marks off instinctive or impulsive action from motivated action we find, Green points out, that we can only say that the former is an act 'not determined by a conception, on the part of the agent, of any good to be gained or evil to be avoided by the action.'1 The implication as to the nature of motivated action, where the end is the end of a desire, is evident.
'Yes,' it may be retorted, 'no doubt the "motive" of action is always a "conceived good." But you have not shown that it is a conceived personal good.' To this, however, Green's reply in the passage immediately following that just quoted seems to be perfectly adequate. 'It is superfluous to add,' he explains, 'good to himself; for anything conceived as good in such a way that the agent acts for the sake of it, must be conceived as his own good, though he may conceive it as his own good only on account of his interest in others, and in spite of any amount of suffering on his own part incidental to its attainment.' 2 Is this claim of Green's really disputable? I cannot think that it is, unless a meaning be read into it more extreme than its author intends - upon which more later. Nor does there seem to be any greater difficulty in making the point in specific reference to desire rather than to motive. To conceive an object as something which I want (which is characteristic of desire as distinct from impulse) seems precisely identical with conceiving the object as a good 'for me,' as a 'personal good'.
1 Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 104.
It is the element of 'self-reference' inherent in desire which the Idealist psychology is especially concerned to bring out. Desire, it may be said, is what impulse becomes when it enters into the experience of a self-conscious subject. Self-consciousness, in relation to the flow of the impulses, is not a mere otiose contemplation which leaves the impulses as they were.1 A self which is conscious of its impulses as impulses of it will naturally consider their objects in the light of their capacity to satisfy not the mere particular impulse, but the self, their common subject. And unless and until this action of self-consciousness, this self-reference, takes place, we do not have the phenomenon which we call 'desire.' And, it may be added, we do hot have the kind of conative experience which is typical of rational beings, and which is the necessary basis for any conduct which we can regard as morally imputable.
This must suffice by way of exposition. A fuller understanding of the theory's precise import will be reached by the discussion, to which we now turn, of the objections commonly alleged against it.