We pass now to a criticism which is of much more fundamental import, one which it is vital that we should dispose of satisfactorily if our theory is to gain credence. It may be put briefly in the following terms. 'You do not dispute,' it may be said, 'that the ultimate court of appeal in deciding what is and what is not relevant for moral valuation is the "moral consciousness." And you do not, we suppose, mean merely your own moral consciousness, but the moral consciousness of mankind generally. But if one does refer for guidance to the common moral consciousness, does one really find that its deliverances, in this or in any other age, support your assertion that "content" is ethically irrelevant? If that were so, it would be the practice to assign a like value (other things being equal) to the man who dedicates his life to an enlightened ideal and to the mere "fanatic," the deluded victim of some childish dream. But the facts are surely otherwise. It is characteristic of the moral consciousness, in so far as this finds expression in common moral judgments, to place the latter personage in a definitely lower moral category. The falseness of an ideal is clearly taken to vitiate in large measure the moral worth of the most conscientious pursuit. And if this be so, what becomes of your doctrine that devotion to one's ideal, or, more precisely, the will-energy which manifests that devotion, is the only thing that counts for moral valuation?'
It is scarcely necessary for me to express my sense of the importance of confirmation of any moral theory by the common moral judgments of mankind. If the moral consciousness has any principle - which is just to say, if there is a moral consciousness at all - that principle must manifest itself (though it may be disguisedly) in all deliverances that really issue from the moral consciousness. Nevertheless, when I ask myself how I should react to the hypothetical presentation of a clear proof that the 'moral judgments,' so called, of every other person took account of 'content' in evaluating conduct, I find that I should be powerless to abandon my present principle. This not from immodesty, but from the simple incapacity to understand, by reference to my own moral experience, what can be meant by holding that a person 'ought' to do what he 'cannot' do, and is morally estimable (or culpable) for aspects of conduct over which he has no control - tenets which are implied in the view which assigns moral value to content as such. I should be compelled instead to hold that if this is really for others the testimony of what they mean by 'moral experience,' then the term 'moral experience' has for them a different reference. They and I are using the same name for quite distinct types of experience. This would be, indeed, a highly undesirable position to have to take up. Out of respect for the common use of language, I should be compelled to say that my doctrine, in not referring to what is ordinarily meant by 'moral' experience, was not an 'ethical' doctrine at all. But undesirable or not, it would seem preferable to flouting the unmistakable testimony of one's own fundamental experience.
But fortunately there is no need to adopt this drastic attitude. The common moral consciousness of mankind is only 'at the first look' hostile to the principle of valuation here maintained. It does often seem to assign important status to content in the determination of moral worth. But, I am prepared to argue, it is only 'seeming.' Where such judgments are passed, it is not the 'moral consciousness' that is responsible. The authentic utterance of the moral consciousness has been obstructed, either by the intrusion of selfish interests, or by the commission of a certain assignable confusion of thought. Upon each of these disturbing influences it is necessary to speak at some length. I shall deal first with the former.
That the intrusion of selfish interests biases the moral judgment in the way I suggest is best observed in a very common phenomenon of both private and public life. I refer to the revision - often of the nature of a reversal - which so frequently takes place in the estimate of the moral worth of the man whose ideals are (in the valuator's view) unenlightened, after that unenlightenment has for some reason ceased to affect the valuator's personal concerns. The significant thing about such revision is this. The original valuation, carried out while the unenlightened agent is injurious to the valuator, appears to regard the nature of the content as of prime importance. Its lack of enlightenment is treated as a grave delinquency, and the agent tends to be condemned as little better than a rogue. The subsequent valuation, on the other hand, carried out when the agent has ceased, through death or otherwise, to be a danger to the valuator, shows an exceedingly well-marked tendency to treat the unenlightenment of the content as of no account whatever. The tendency is now to consider as the thing that really matters, how far the man did sincerely follow the light that was in him. Instances of the sort abound (they are almost a commonplace in the political arena). I shall refer to one or two by way of illustration in a moment. And it will scarcely be denied that it is in the second of the two psychical situations involved, where there is nothing to disturb judicial impartiality, that the purer, more authentic expression of the moral consciousness is likely to be found.
As it is obviously most suitable that instances should be selected in which the actual facts are widely known and beyond dispute, we may turn to public life for our illustrations. And we might look far without coming upon an example more impressive and suggestive than the fluctuation in the British people's moral estimate of the great Indian patriot and mystic, Gandhi.