21 OCTOBER 1922, Page 40



MORAL philosophers as a race have talked more and said

less than any other variety of writers, except perhaps the writers of bad fiction ; indeed, it might be argued that their sin is the worse of the two, because though writers of bad fiction produce what is largely ineptitude, it is generally

light and simple ineptitude, whereas the ineptitudes of the moral philosopher are generally heavy and complex. The difficulty for the moral philosopher has always been the difficulty of delving down to a rock-bottom, of finding a real and permanent foundation on which to base his system ; consequently the literature of the subject presents a great variety of curious edifices not unlike Mr. Heath Robinson's delightful picture of the house whose construction has pro- gressed from the chimneypots downwards, the whole meanwhile supported on the head of a small " tweeny " standing on the top of a pair of steps. It is for reasons such as these that the arrival of a new book on ethics produces a disagree. able thrill in even the boldest reviewer.

Happily in the present case our fears were unfounded, for Mr. B. M. Laing's book is one of the right kind ; indeed, in many ways it is quite excellent. His two most valuable qualities as an ethicist are a determination to dig down to first causes and a close adherence to practical issues. He is not the kind of spider that looses a long, subtle filament and floats away on it into the blue. He spins strong and well- knit webs, and attaches them to the firm structure of reality ; he always uses life (life in the concrete as we see it before us) as the test of his own theories and those of others. " As for science," writes Mr. Laing, " general formulae or laws can be reached and are intelligent only on the basis of a detailed acquaintance with facts, so in action the successful application of principles or laws presupposes a similar basis."

Ethics has for long been hampered by a mistaken concep- tion of its function :—

" The common assumption has been that it is the business of ethics to set up moral standards or norms, and it is this assumption 7.80 that has created difficulties for ethical method. It has led to the demand that moral problems must be solved in moral terms or in terms of moral fact, and it has hampered ethical enquiry and hindered the solution of moral difficulties by prejudging how and where a solution is to be found, instead of allowing the enquirer to seek s solution amongst a material that is likely to be most fruitful."

The chapter on " Values and Causes" is of great importance in its bearing on the subject. When we examine the moral

factor in human action, it is generally agreed that we are not explaining it but simply justifying it. An event cannot be attributed to a moral factor in the sense that the moral factor is its cause, for a moral factor is not a cause or a force but a value. But if this is so (and that it is so Mr. Laing, we think, clearly establishes) the solution of moral problems must be sought in terms that are other than moral. " It is not values that influence action," says Mr. Laing, " but it is through his consciousness of values that a man determines

his action." But if we are to lay bare the causes of human action, the analysis must be pushed further back. Mr.

Laing accordingly goes on to discuss the psychological factor,

but here again the conclusion reached is that the causes of human action cannot be found in such properties as instincts, emotions, desires and complexes, for these are reactions, " and are to be understood only as a type of action." The pursuit, then, must be continued. What, we must now ask, are the conditions which call forth and direct these reactions ? Problems based on this question are continually arising at the present time. The conflicts between Labour and Employers do not originate in moral causes ; indeed, as we have seen,

there is no such thing. Each side is strongly convinced of its moral justification, and there would be no paradox in main-

taining that both are correct. Such conflict arises out of physical, economic or psychological causes, causes capable of being discovered and removed, and only their removal can permanently relieve the situation. The problem of morality originates, then, in non-moral factors or conditions and not primarily in human nature. The doctrine that would force man to be moral, regardless of • A Study in Moral Problems. By B. M. Laing. London : Allen and Unals. [10s. Bd. net.]

circumstances, instead of forcing circumstances to enable man healthily and without repression to be moral, has been shown by psycho-analysis to have serious pathological results.

Mr. Laing criticizes very effectually the views of Bradley and Professor Sorley on the necessity for evil. " If goodness is to remain," wrote Bradley, " the contradiction cannot quite cease, since a discord we saw was essential to goodness. Thus if there is to be morality, there cannot altogether be an end of evil." " An imperfect world," says Professor Sorley, is necessary for the growth and training of moral beings." These views, Mr. Laing points out, imply something strongly contradictory about morality :-

"Either morality ceases if the moral effort is successful and if all values are realized ; or else it continually just misses its goal and becomes a striving after something which never is, can be, nor must be attained but which ought to be attained. One of the fundamental beliefs on which morality rests, namely, that `ought' implies ' can ' is rejected, and there is imposed upon man an obligatory task that is yet impossible of fulfilment. The real itself is so interpreted that morality becomes something impossible."

Mr. Laing's answer to this kind of dialectic seems to us entirely sane :—

"The difficulties which arise of such theories can be met only by deserting completely the dialectical method and dialectical type of solution, and by recognizing the great difference between finding formulae and finding the controlling causes. It is a step of great ethical importance and significance to recognize that the actual problems of morality have their origin, not in dialectical argument, but in real factors, causes, or conditions which may have features quite different from those of the situation which presents the problem ; and that, as is the case in the natural sciences, a solution is to be sought through the discovery of the causes or conditions which bring about the situation."

In this connexion it is interesting to observe how applicable Mr. Laing's ideas and methods are to practical examples His clear thinking throws a strong light on social problems of to-day. " During recent industrial and political struggles," he writes in a footnote,

" those engaged have devoted themselves to finding a ' formula,' on the basis of which discussion might take place and agreement be reached. Such a procedure does not give a solution of the problems at issue ; it is an attempt to circumvent causes by words due to the fallacious belief that finding formulae is the same as dealing with causes. The result is that people move in an unreal world, where the solutions reached are repeatedly upset by the operation of real causes that continue to act."

We have been unable to give more than a superficial indica- tion of Mr. Laing's attitude and methods, an outline which is far from doing justice to the depth and forcefulness of his analysis. His book is in our opinion one of quite unusual value. He has succeeded in confining the problem of morality strictly to the real and practical, so that with him morality is always a science in the real sense and not, as it so often is, an uncomfortable and shaky edifice of personal moralizing and vague metaphysics.