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The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong Routledge Revivals

The Origin of Our Knowledge of Right and Wrong Routledge Revivals

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(Note 28 to page 21)

Compare Hume’s Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, which has already been
cited. Some philosophers who have attempted to base ethics upon the feelings have

shown more insight than Hume. (For example, Beneke and Überweg, who follows him;
see the account of Beneke’s ethical views in Volume III of Überweg’s Grundriss der
Geschichte der Philosophie.
) Herbart comes closer to the truth when he speaks of

“evident judgements of taste” and when he contrasts the beautiful with what is merely

pleasing, ascribing universal validity and indubitable worth only to the former. (Strictly

speaking, however, one should not use the expression “evident judgements of taste”. For

what we have here are really feelings and not judgements at all. And feelings, as such, are
not evident but only analogous to what is evident.) Unfortunately, Herbart’s views are
mistaken in other respects, and he soon strays from the proper path, with the result that
his practical philosophy is much farther from the truth than that of Hume.

Those who overlook the distinction between pleasure that is experienced as being
correct and pleasure that is not so experienced are likely to fall into one or the other of


[Editor’s note: Brentano is here referring to A. Meinong’s “Zur erkenntnistheoretischen
Würdigung des Gedächtnis”, Vierteljahrsschrift für wissenschaftliche Philosophic, Tenth Year
(1886), pp. 7–33.]

56 The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong

two opposing errors. Thus some speak as though all pleasure is experienced as being
correct, and others as though no pleasure is experienced as being correct. Those who take
the latter course abandon altogether the concept of the good as being that which rightly
pleases; “worthy of being desired” as distinguished from “capable of being desired” is
said to be an expression without sense. But for those who take the former course, the
expression “worthy of being desired” does at least remain an independent concept. When
they say, “Whatever is capable of being desired for its own sake is something that is
worthy of being desired for its own sake, something that is good in itself”, they believe
that they are not expressing a tautology. And obviously this is something they should say
if they are to be consistent, and in fact many did say it. In the middle ages, for example, it
was even taught by the great Thomas Aquinas, to whom Ihering has paid fresh tribute.
(See for example, the Sum ma Theologicay I, Q. 80 and 82, Art. 2, ad 1, and elsewhere.)

But this doctrine cannot be made to fit the facts unless the concepts of good and bad are

given an incorrect subjective interpretation, similar to the Protagorean interpretation of
the concepts of truth and falsehood. According to such subjectivism within the sphere of
judgement, each man is the measure of all things; hence it often happens that what is true
for one man is false for another. Analogously, those who hold that only the good can be
loved and only the bad can be hated must assume that, within the sphere of the emotions,
each man is the measure of all things, of things that are good in themselves, that they are
good, and of things that are bad in themselves that they are bad. If this assumption is
correct, then it will often happen that one and the same thing is both good and bad in
itself; it will be good in itself for those who love it for its own sake, and it will be bad in

itself for those who hate it for its own sake. But this is absurd. The subjective falsification
of the concept of the good is just as untenable as is the subjective falsification of the

concepts of truth and existence which Protagoras defended. But it is much easier to slip
into the subjectivistic error in the former case, where we are concerned with what is
rightly pleasing or displeasing. The error infects most ethical systems today. Some
embrace it openly, as Sigwart has recently done (see the Vorfragen der Ethik, p. 6); others
fall into it without being clearly conscious of the subjectivistic nature of their views.1


Some thinkers teach that each person’s knowledge, pleasure, and perfection are the things that are
good for him: their opposites are bad for him, and everything else indifferent in itself. Possibly

they will object to my counting them among the subjactivists, since it may seem upon superficial

consideration that they are advocating a theory of the good that is equally valid for all. But a more
careful examination will show that according to this view there is nothing that is universally good.
Thus my own knowledge would be said to be worthy of my love, but it would be said to be
intrinsically indifferent for everyone else; and the knowledge that any other person has would be

intrinsically indifferent for me. It is especially strange to find that theists often advocate a

subjectivistic view of loving and willing in the case of mortals, while assuming that God, and God
alone, applies an objective standard and is thus able to estimate each perfection without regard to
person. And then they suppose that by setting up God as an objective and eternal judge, they can
make their egoistic principles harmless in practice.

Supplementary Notes 57

In the celebrated controversy between Bossuet and Fenélon, the great Bishop of Meaux advocated
what might be called a version of subjectivism. Though Fenélon’s moral precepts were neither

base nor unchristian, his theses were finally condemned by Rome, but without being declared to be

heretical. Indeed, if his teachings were heretical, then so, too, would be the thought underlying
those beautiful and inspired lines, sometimes attributed to St. Theresa, which have not only
escaped ecclesiastical censure, but have also found their way into many Catholic prayer books, in
an inadequate Latin translation. I translate them here directly from the Spanish:

Nicht HofFnung auf des Himmels sel’ge Freuden
Hat Dir, mein Gott, zum Dienste mich verbunden,
Nicht Furcht, die ich vor ew’gem Graus empfunden,
Hat mich bewegt, der Sünder Pfad zu meiden.

Du, Herr, bewegst mich, mich bewegt Dein Leiden,
Dein Anblick in den letzten, bangen Stunden,
Der Geisseln Wut, Dein Haupt von Dorn umwunden,
Dein schweres Kreuz und—ach!—Dein bittres Scheiden.

Herr, Du bewegest mich mit solchem Triebe,
Dass ich Dich liebte, wär’ kein Himmel offen, Dich
fürchtete, wenn auch kein Abgrund schreckte;
Nichts kannst Du geben, was mir Liebe weckte;
Denn würd’ ich auch nicht, wie ich hoffe, hoffen,
Ich würde dennoch lieben, wie ich liebe.

[This poem may be paraphrased as follows:

It is not hopes of heavenly bliss
That have bound me to your service, O God;
It was not fear of eternal torment
That persuaded me to avoid the path of the sinner.

It was you and your sufferings that moved me, Lord:
Your visage in the last fearful hours.
The fury of the scourge, the crown of thorns on your brow,
Your heavy cross—and your bitter farewell.

As I have said, once one accepts the view that nothing can please except to the extent that it
is really good in itself, and nothing can displease except to the extent that it is really bad in
itself, one has taken a path which, if followed consistently, can lead only to subjectivism.

58 The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong

Lord, you move me so strongly
That I would love you if there were no entrance to heaven
And would fear you if there were no threat of hell.
You cannot give me anything to make me love you:
If you had nothing to give, I would not hope as I do,
But I would love you just as I do now.]

The views of Thomas Aquinas have often been presented as though they were pure subjectivism. It
is true that much of what he says has a subjectivistic tone. (See for example, Summa Theologica, I,
Q. 80, Art. 1, and note in particular the objections and replies, as well as the passages in which he

states that one’s own happiness is the highest final end for each person. He even says that each of the saints

in heaven rightly desires his own blessedness more than that of all others.) But there are also state-
ments showing that he rises above this subjectivistic viewpoint. For example, he says (as Plato and
Aristotle had said before him, and as Descartes and Leibniz were to say afterwards) that everything
that exists is as such something that is good, and good not merely as a means but also in itself. This last is a
point the pure subjectivist explicitly denies (as Sigwart has recently done in his Vorfragen der Ethik, p. 6).
Aquinas also says that if—what is in fact impossible—one had to choose between one’s own eternal
damnation and an injury to the divine love, then it would be right to prefer one’s own eternal unhappiness.
In this latter instance, the moral feelings of Western Christianity are the same as those of the heathen Hin-
du, expressed in the rather strange story of the maiden who renounced her own eternal blessedness
for the salvation of the rest of the world. The positivistic philosopher, Mill, expresses the same sentiment
when he writes that, rather than bow in prayer before a being who is not truly good, “to hell I will go”.
I knew a Catholic priest who voted for Mill in a parliamentary election just because of this remark.

This becomes evident once one concedes (as at first one may not) that one and the same
phenomenon may give rise to contrary tastes—to pleasure in one case and to displeasure
in another. One may be tempted to argue that in such cases, although the external stimuli
are the same, the corresponding subjective ideas or presentations must be essentially
different. But this is impossible in the cases where we repeatedly experience one and the
same phenomenon and then, as a result of an increase in age or a change in our habits,
come to feel quite differently about it, experiencing it now with displeasure instead of
with pleasure, or conversely (see Section 25 of the lecture). There is no doubt but that
contrary feelings may be directed upon one and the same phenomenon. This is also
confirmed where an idea or presentation is instinctively repellent to us and yet arouses at
the same time a higher type of pleasure (see Note 32 of the lecture).

Supplementary Notes 59

If it were reasonable to suppose that every positive feeling or emotion is correct and
that no such feeling or emotion ever contradicts another, then it would also be reasonable
to suppose that the same is true of acts of preference. But this latter is so obviously false

that those who hold the former view explicitly deny it and insist that, so far as contrary
preferences are concerned, one is correct and the other incorrect.
Looking away from the medieval Aristotelians and going back to the master himself,

we find that his own doctrine was quite different. He was aware of the distinction

between correct and incorrect desires

and knew that

what is desired

is not always what is good

(De Anima, Book III,
Chapter 10). In the Nicomachaean Ethics (Book X, Chapter 3), he says that not every


is good; there is such a thing as taking pleasure in the bad, and this is
itself bad. In the Metaphysics (Book XII, Chapter 7, 1072a 28), he distinguishes between
a lower and a higher type of desire

what is desired for its
own sake by the higher type of desire is truly good. Here we are very close to the correct

conception. It is especially interesting to find (as I did after presenting the lecture) that

Aristotle had observed the analogy between ethical subjectivism and the logical
subjectivism of Protagoras and that he repudiates both (Metaphysics, Book XI, Chapter 6,
1062b 12 and 1063a 10). But in the lines that immediately follow this passage, he seems
to say, incorrectly, that we can recognize the good as good without any excitation of the
emotions (compare De Anima, Book III, Chapters 9 and 10).

The temptation leading to such an error is easy to understand. It undoubtedly explains
why Aristotle denies in the Nichomachaean Ethics (Book I, Chapter 6) that there is a
univocal concept of the good (meaning thereby the concept of what is good in itself) and
why he says that the goodness of rational thinking, of seeing, of joy, are united only by
analogy. And it also explains why he says in the Metaphysics (Book VI, Chapter 4, 1027b
25) that the true and the false, unlike the good and the bad, are not in things. The former
predicates, he says, are ascribed to things only in relation to certain psychological
acts—namely, true and false judgements—as when we say “a true God” or “a false
friend”. But the predicates good and bad, he continues, are not thus ascribed to things
merely in relation to a particular class of psychological activities. This is all incorrect, but
it is an inevitable consequence of the error we have noted. Aristotle is closer to the
correct view of the source of our concept and knowledge of the good when, in the
Nichomachaean Ethics (Book X, Chapter 3), he argues against the doctrine that pleasure

60 The Origin of our Knowledge of Right and Wrong

I have said that the temptation into which Aristotle fell seems quite understandable. It
may be traced to the fact that whenever we have a positive emotion that is experienced as
being correct, we also acquire the knowledge that the object of the emotion is something
that is good. It is easy to confuse the relation between the emotion and the knowledge.
One may then assume, mistakenly, that the love of the good thing is a consequence of the
knowledge that it is good, and that the love is seen to be correct because it is seen to be
appropriate to the knowledge.

cannot be good. His argument is that everyone desires it. He adds: “If only irrational
beings desired it, there might be something in what is said. But if rational creatures do so
as well, what sense can there be in this view?” And this assertion can also be reconciled
with the erroneous part of Aristotle’s theory. In this respect, then, the moralists of
sentiment, such as Hume, have an advantage over Aristotle, for they may correctly ask:
How is one to know that a thing is worthy of being loved if one does not have the
experience of love?

It is interesting to compare this error of Aristotle concerning the experience of correct
emotion with the analogous error that Descartes had made in the case of judgement (see
Note 27, “On the Evident”). In each case, the philosopher in question tries to find the
distinguishing mark in some peculiarity of the idea or presentation that lies at the basis of
the psychological act, instead of looking, as he should have, toward the act itself which is
experienced as being correct. Indeed, it seems clear to me from various passages in
Descartes’ book, “Les Passions”, that he viewed correct emotion in substantially the
same way that Aristotle did and that he held an analogous theory of the evident.

Supplementary Notes 61

At the present time, there who come close to making the error that Descartes had made
with respect to the nature of the evident (or perhaps we should say, they do make this
error, implicitly). They seem to hold that every evident judgement can be seen to be
evident upon the basis of some criterion, which would have to be given in advance.
Either the criterion itself would have to be known, in which case there would be an
infinite regress, or—and this is the only alternative—it would have to be given in the idea
or presentation that underlies the judgement. As in the previous case, the temptation to
make this error is easy to understand, and doubtless it had its effect upon Descartes.
Aristotle’s error is less common, though probably only because the phenomenon of an
emotion being experienced as correct has received less attention than the evident
judgement. Many have misconceived the latter, but few have even given the former
enough consideration to be able to misconceive it.

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