The most obvious objection to Intuitionalist ethics is as follows. It is of the essence of this type of theory to lay down a number of moral rules, each of which is supposed to be absolutely or unconditionally binding in its own right. But practical situations arise in which these rules seem to dictate mutually exclusive courses of action. Thus there may be a rule prescribing truth-telling, and another prescribing the prevention of needless suffering, and I may find that in my particular situation I can obey the first rule only by disobeying the second. What then am I to do? Intuitionalism can give no answer, for each rule is for it, ex hypothesi, absolutely binding. We are left with a conflict of professed ultimates. We are told that we ought to do a, and ought to do b; which means in this situation that we both ought, and ought not, to do a.

The point is a simple one, but it seems so directly fatal to Intuitionalism as commonly held that it may repay us to dwell upon it a little longer. Intuitionalist ethics, I am affirming, lands us in crass self-contradiction. For consider. According to the theory, we are given, let us say, five absolutely binding 'ends,' A, B, C, D, E. Now if A is absolutely binding, that means that all other ends must defer to A. But then 'all other ends' must include the ends B, C, D, E. Yet each of these latter is, ex hypothesi, absolutely binding, and each is such, therefore, that all other ends, including A, ought to defer to it. We are being told, therefore, both that B (likewise C, D, E) ought to defer to A, and that A ought to defer to B (likewise to C, D, E).1

A very interesting attempt to circumvent the difficulties inherent in the presence of a manifold of ultimate obligations has recently been made by Mr W. D. Ross in his book The Right and the Good. We must distinguish, he tells us, between prima facie duty and absolute or actual duty. The term 'prima facie duty' is 'a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant. Whether an act is a duty proper or actual duty depends on all the morally significant kinds it is an instance of' (pp. 19-20). It is only to the category of 'prima facie duty' that, for Mr Ross, the intuited' general rules' or 'principles' of morality belong. We intuit promise-keeping, for example, not as something which we unconditionally ought to do, but as something which we ought to do wherever the case is not complicated by the relevance to the particular act of other moral principles.

It is pretty evident that this view successfully avoids the self-contradiction inherent in the ordinary Intuitionalist theory. That contradiction had its source in the alleged absoluteness of the obligation of each moral principle. But with the 'condition' introduced by the present view the possibility of contradiction between the principles disappears. On the other hand, as I shall try to show, the temporary advantage gained is of little avail. If the older theory could not tell us what we ought to do where two ultimate obligations come into conflict, the present theory is in no better case where two prima facie obligations come into conflict.

1 In expressing the argument in this way I have especially in mind a passage in which Caird criticises the Kantian resolution of morality into so many absolutely binding moral rules {Critical Philosophy of Kant, vol. ii. P. 175).

By way of bringing out the difficulty for Mr Ross's theory, we may note briefly the manner in which the monistic moralist views the conflict between traditionally accepted 'moral rules' For him, too, these moral rules possess a certain authority. But it is not an authority which belongs to them in their own right. It is an authority derivative from the authority of a single supreme moral principle. The accepted moral rules of any community represent the ways of behaving, in certain typical and important practical relationships, which respect for the one supreme moral principle has seemed to prescribe. Since they are the product of the accumulated moral wisdom of generations, they are obviously not to be lightly discarded. On the other hand, if we lose sight of the spirit behind the letter of the law, we become impotent, in the first place, to discern when, owing to special individual circumstances, or perhaps to a change in the general conditions of life, the letter no longer manifests the spirit: and we become impotent, in the second place, to resolve any conflict which may arise between the claims of different rules. But since in truth the only authority which these rules possess belongs to them in respect of their capacity to express the one ultimate moral law or ideal, the principle for the solution of any conflict between the courses which they dictate is always available. We have simply to ask ourselves, which of the proposed (mutually exclusive) courses of action is the one best calculated to realise the ultimate ideal? We shall feel no compunction in disobeying the 'rule' which this inquiry decides us to reject, for we recognise that the authority of that rule was conditional, and that the condition upon which it rested is not here fulfilled.1 Now Mr Ross's moral rules have, in a sense, only 'conditional' authority likewise. They are merely 'prima facie' obligations. But the difficulty is to see what it is for Mr Ross that has absolute or unconditional authority. For monistic ethics there is a single supreme standard by appeal to which we can in principle adjust and compose the conflicting claims of different 'conditional' duties. What is there to fulfil this indispensable function in Mr Ross's theory?

1 I need scarcely say that I am not for a moment intending to suggest here that there are not very serious difficulties in the way of exhibiting the different moral rules as derivations of a single principle. My purpose here is only to draw attention to what appears to be a technical superiority of monistic to pluralistic ethics.