The Foundation of Ethics

The ethical paradox—What should I do?—is beyond the province of the natural sciences; for the natural sciences, based as they are upon the principle of public knowledge, are inherently incapable of comprehending the idea of personal choice. What about the sciences of man—history, anthropology, sociology—can they help us? These certainly tell us how man has behaved in the past, and how in fact he now behaves. And when we ask them whether man ought to behave in the way he has and does, they are able to point to the manifest consequences in this world of man's various kinds of behaviour, and if we press them further to indicate which of these consequences are good and which bad, they can often tell us which have been most generally approved by man and which disapproved.

But if we ask them whether the majority of mankind has been right in approving what in fact it has approved and in disapproving what it has disapproved, they are silent. The answer of course is simply that if I, personally, approve what the majority of mankind has approved I shall say that the majority is right, but if I disapprove I shall say that it is wrong. But the scientific method eliminates the individual on principle, and for the humanist sciences man is essentially a collective or social phenomenon. For them, in consequence, I as an individual do not exist at all; at best I am conceded a part-share in the general consensus of opinion. The individual's view as an absolute ethical choice is systematically swallowed up in the view of mankind as a whole; and if the ethical question is raised at all, the sciences of man can only reply that the opinion of the majority represents the ultimate truth (a view that the defeated candidates in any election, who are themselves always in the majority, know to be false).

Furthermore, the only consequences of man's behaviour that these sciences are in a position to consider are the social consequences; what effects an individual's behaviour has upon himself or upon some other individual is not a comprehensible question. This means that a person seeking ethical enlightenment from the sciences of man is likely to conclude that only social values are moral values, and that a man can do as he pleases in private. It is hardly necessary to remark that with the growth of these sciences this view has already become extremely fashionable, and no great wonder: it puffs up the politician into an arbiter and legislator of morals—a function hitherto restricted to Divine Personages or their Representatives—and it allows the private citizen to enjoy his personal pleasures with a clear conscience. Eventually, we meet with political systems that have been raised to the status of religions. It is evident that the question of ethics, of the personal choice, does not come within the competence of the sciences either of nature or of man to answer.

It may happen, of course, that a man who clearly understands this may nevertheless decide that the service of man is the highest good. But if we press him to say why he has decided that concern with human society is the aim and purpose of his life, he will perhaps explain since he himself is a human being his personal happiness is bound up with human societies, and in promoting the welfare of mankind in general he is advancing his own welfare.

We may or may not agree with him, but that is not the point. The point is that, in the last analysis, a man chooses what he does choose in order to obtain happiness, whether it is the immediate satisfaction of an urgent desire or a remote future happiness bought perhaps with present acceptance of suffering. This means that the questions 'What is the purpose of existence?' and 'How is happiness to be obtained?' are synonymous; for they are both the ethical question, 'What should I do?' But there is happiness and happiness, and the intelligent man will prefer the permanent to the temporary.

The question, then, is 'How is permanent happiness, if such a thing exists, to be obtained?' This question in the West, with its Christian tradition, has always been associated with that of the existence of God, conceived as the ultimate source of all values, union with whom (or the admittance to whose presence) constitutes eternal happiness. The traditional Western Ethic is thus 'Obey the Laws of God'. But with the decline of Christianity before the triumphal progress of science God was pronounced dead and the question of the possibility of permanent happiness was thrown open. 'Has existence then any significance at all?...the question,' Nietzsche declared, 'that will require a couple of centuries even to be completely heard in all its profundity.'