Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved January 19, 2021, from

3. Ethics

Greater recognition came with Ethical Studies, a work which more than any of his others reveals Hegel’s influence in both its ideas and its dialectical construction. This construction means that Bradley’s prefatory remark that the essays ‘must be read in the order in which they stand’ should be taken seriously. Although the third essay is a locus classicus of arguments against hedonistic utilitarianism (see Hedonism; Pleasure; Utilitarianism) and the fifth presents with some passion a social conception of the moral life, the common idea that these two can be read in isolation as representing Bradley’s own final views is mistaken. What Ethical Studies aimed at was a gradual working-out of an account of morality which, unlike the prevalent utilitarianism, did full justice to ordinary moral ideas and did not rely on a deficient notion of the self. (One of the book’s governing notions is that ordinary moral thinking is not to be displaced by the fruits of moral philosophy.) This development originates in an examination of the ‘vulgar’ notion of moral responsibility, and a rejection of both determinism and indeterminism as one-sided views obtained by concentrating on different aspects of human action which coexist unproblematically but are made to appear as conflicting by abstraction from the whole (see Free will §§1–2, 4). It continues in the second essay by asking ‘Why should I be moral?’ His answer is that the moral end for each of us is self-realization, but as he holds all action to be self-realization whether the action be wicked or otherwise, he has to explain the kind of self-realization which is morality’s goal: it is to realize oneself as an infinite whole (see Self-realization). One thing this may mean is that the fully moral self is not to be limited by any other self: that is, one aim of morality is the resolution of conflict between one’s good and bad selves in favour of the former. Another is that self-realization can be accomplished only through the mutual dependence of self and society. But what it amounts to is meant to be revealed through consideration of representative philosophical theories, each of which, through its one-sidedness, is more or less unsatisfactory as it stands. One is hedonistic utilitarianism, from which, roughly speaking, Bradley drops the hedonism and individualism but retains the utilitarianism (being prepared to regard happiness as the goal of morality (see Happiness) provided it is not thought of as some independently identifiable state which could just as well be attained by some more convenient means, that is, as externally related to morality itself). Next comes a Kantian ethics of duty, from which he retains the idea that the performance of duties is essential to morality, while dropping the notion that duty should be done for duty’s sake rather than because of the particular content of the individual duty (see Duty; Kantian ethics). Both these theories come to grief because of erroneous views about the nature of the self, which, Bradley thinks, is a concrete universal and essentially social. In the fifth essay he develops a Hegelian account of morality according to which the self is fully realized by playing its role in the social organism. While Bradley recognizes this account to be inadequate, because, for example, communities themselves can have moral imperfections, it nevertheless differs in status from the views he considered previously, for he regards it as merely requiring supplementation (undertaken in the next essay on ideal morality). But he does not make clear how self-realization as a part of the social organism can be an intelligible moral demand, for Bradley’s argument against social contract theories – that they presuppose an impossible metaphysics of persons, in that the parties to the contract are only contingently social – requires him to hold that the self is already and necessarily social. Yet perhaps this does not matter, for the book closes by condemning morality itself as ultimately a self-contradictory enterprise, depending for its existence on the existence of the evil it seeks to overcome, and thus rendering impossible the ultimate realization of the ideal self, a realization obtainable only in religion.

Some of Bradley’s metaphysical apparatus is deployed in his moral philosophy, along with anticipations of his idealism and hostility to external relations. One example is the concrete universal, a notion which arises from his rejection of the standard universal–particular distinction, on the grounds that this distinction abstracts unreal elements (that is, those incapable of independent existence) from actual things. Thus when we attribute greenness to a leaf, both the particular (the leaf without its greenness) to which the greenness is attributed and the universal (the greenness without the leaf) are figments of the intellect; any impression of their independent existence arises from the mechanisms of thought. Thought has to divide reality up like this in order to function at all, but thereby distorts its nature. The concrete universal and the concrete particular are both the one individual thing: a leaf is universal in collecting together diverse abstract particulars, such as its various stages over time, and particular in its being distinct from other leaves. Communities and individual persons are likewise concrete universals, the former retaining their identities over many generations, the latter through many actions, and Bradley thought moral philosophy had to recognize this. Although the expression ‘concrete universal’ rarely figures in Bradley’s work subsequent to The Principles of Logic, the idea involved is fundamental to his thought in both logic and metaphysics in its encapsulation of the idea that abstraction is falsification (see Hegel, G.W.F. §6; Universals).

Citing this article:
Candlish, Stewart. Ethics. Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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