We may remind ourselves once more that every rational being has in the nature of the case a 'moral ideal,' something which he is conscious that he 'ought' to do or be. And this ideal is no mere vague nebulosity. Through the influence of social education working upon the material of his native impulses, it takes concrete shape in every man as a more or less coherent system of definite activities.
The individual's consciousness that he ought to follow his ideal is thus always in practice a consciousness that he ought to act in certain definite ways. Accordingly the moral value which he feels attaches to following his ideal, he naturally ascribes to these particular ways of acting, which are what his ideal means concretely for him. He will think and speak of such acts as 'moral values,' which indeed they are so far as his own behaviour is concerned, since to perform them is to follow his ideal.
But the trouble is that it will be perilously easy for him to lose sight of the fact that to act thus has 'moral value' only because and in so far as these acts are the expression of his ideal. The more he thinks and speaks of them as morally good, and comes to make his moral judgments automatically by reference to them, and, especially, the more he finds other persons referring to them in these same terms, the more liable he will be to slip into the error of looking upon these acts, these 'contents,' as moral values not merely in relation to an agent whose ideal they represent, but in their own right.
A certain level of moral reflection is necessary, indeed, in order to avoid this mistake, which rests at bottom on a failure to recognise the distinction between the ideal qua ideal, and the acts which are its temporary, de facto embodiment. But there does always lie latent in the mind the awareness that what gives the acts their moral value is their nature as expressions of the ideal; an awareness only awaiting, for the possibility of becoming explicit, the recognition of the distinction alluded to. The conditions required to incite this recognition are just the general conditions, needless to detail here, which arouse doubt as to the validity of one's inherited moral code. When I come to 'doubt,' when I come to ask of my hitherto accepted moral 'content,' 'Is this what I really think I ought to do?' - i.e. 'Is this the proper concrete embodiment of my ideal?' - I am obviously recognising the distinction between ideal as such and its de facto embodiment. And it is only a short step from this to the explicit consciousness that it is only as expressing my ideal that my concrete acts have moral value. For when I ask of my hitherto accepted content, 'Is this what I really think I ought to do?,' I am aware that I ought not to do it if it is not what I really think I ought to do, i.e. that my acts have no moral value if they do not express my own ideal: and conversely I am aware that I ought to do whatsoever my reflections now lead me to think I ought to do, i.e. that my acts have moral value if they are expressive of my own ideal.
The level of moral reflection involved is certainly fairly elementary, but it is probably not even within the capacity of the more primitive peoples. For there is very little in the experience of a member of a primitive community likely to stimulate doubt as to the validity of his code, and to arouse in consequence this recognition of a distinction between ideal as such and de facto embodiment. Close relations of a friendly order with other persons who subscribe to other codes is the most common stimulus of moral reflection, but primitive man is unlikely to be touched thereby. It is quite as we should expect, therefore, that among ruder peoples moral judgment is passed consistently in terms of a rigid standard of 'content.' It would not even occur to the savage to ask whether his fellow-tribesman who violates a taboo is perhaps doing what he thinks right.
But even in more developed communities it is surprising how many fail to reach the elementary level of moral reflection required. The capacity of the average man to retain immunity against the manifold influences which must breed doubt of the validity of one's own code in the most mildly reflective intelligence, is truly astonishing. The more sensitive, of course, are affected. And they, recognising that the ideal may, indeed must, vary in its embodiment, do often take the further step of recognising that the supreme moral law is not, 'Do this, or that, particular thing,' but 'Do the particular thing which you think right, which manifests your ideal.' They have come to see, that is, that devotion to one's ideal is the one thing of sure moral value. But they are the exceptions.
Most people, even yet, tend to regard as 'good in their own right' the modes of conduct which happen to constitute their concrete ideal (and which are thus morally good so far as they are the agents concerned); more especially so with regard to those central modes of conduct which are relatively common constituents of the society's ideal, and which are in consequence constantly spoken of and written of in terms of direct admonition and command.
It is through a quite understandable misinterpretation, then, of the essential nature of that which one's moral consciousness really approves and disapproves, that moral value tends to be ascribed to certain concrete ends in their own right - to paying one's debts, honouring one's parents, helping the needy, and so on. And on the whole this illusion that certain concrete ends are as such good and bad may be said to work moderately well in the actual practice of common moral judgment. It seldom leads to gross injustices in moral valuation, by reason of the substantial identity of the moral ideals of the several members of a single community. To censure the promoter of bogus companies, to commend the honest and the diligent - judgments of this kind must be acknowledged to be tolerably safe. On the other hand, when it comes to less central 'duties,' upon which, once reflection is stirred, difference of opinion is natural, our 'standard' judgments will often go wildly astray. And if we are stupid enough to apply our rigid standard to the conduct of alien races it is certain that our judgments will often grotesquely misrepresent the real moral value in the case. But even if the 'concrete' standard did work satisfactorily always, led to no injustices of valuation, it would be no more valid in theory than if it never worked satisfactorily at all.