Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

2. Ethics

Bradley’s second book, Ethical Studies (1876), deals with the very nature of the moral quest. The book is ‘dialectical’ in a distinctively Hegelian fashion. Bradley’s views are not directly explained but achieved through a series of interconnected steps; at each turn a different position is examined, criticised, and eventually discarded as one-sided. The partial truth of the discarded position is preserved at the next argumentative level, however, so that the whole critical examination moves towards a conception that (at least ideally) grows complete and stable, unassailable from further criticisms.

This means that to understand the precise meaning of any of Bradley’s claims in Ethical Studies one must understand how they fit into the book’s entire argument. We find here a special application of a fundamental principle Bradley advocates in all of his writings: ‘abstraction’ (in the sense of separation of a few selected aspects form a larger whole) may be sometimes necessary, but it leads to distortion and falsification if the abstracted pieces are not considered in the light of the overarching unity from which they have been detached.

Bradley begins his investigation into the nature of morality in Ethical Studies by rejecting as meaningless the question as to why one should be moral. The question is idle, because it belongs to the very essence of morality that it does not need any external justification by reference to external, non-moral ends. This position calls for a clarification of the proper goal of morality, which Bradley (plausibly yet without much argumentation) refers to as ‘self-realization’. In order to arrive at a definition of this fundamental concept, Bradley examines the most important ethical systems of his day. One first position Bradley criticises is the sort of hedonistic utilitarianism advocated by the Mills, which identifies the good with the maximisation of pleasure. Bradley rejects this view on the ground that pleasure is only a transitory, fleeting mental state; as such, it cannot be a secure ground for a fulfilled human existence.

Equally unsatisfactory is Kant’s ethics, which in Bradley’s view only provides an abstract formula, an empty law from which no concrete duty can be derived. As Bradley views things, utilitarian hedonism focuses only on what is individual, whereas Kant’s ethics offers too much in the way of universality. This leads Bradley to discuss, in the famous chapter ‘My Station and its Duties’, the holistic view of a person’s moral responsibilities as a function of that person’s social position. This Hegelian conception overcomes the shortcomings of both Hedonism and Kantianism by conceiving the individual less abstractedly as part of a larger totality. This position is viewed by Bradley with much sympathy, but it is not one he eventually endorses. As he points out, to fulfil one’s role in society cannot be good if the society one belongs to is morally rotten. Moreover, Bradley holds, there is more to the human self than its social nature.

Bradley concludes his analysis of the proper goal of morality in Ethical Studies by observing that the moral life always aims at making an existent reality such as it ‘should’ be. Morality necessarily presupposes a gap between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be; should such a gap be closed (and reality become ideally perfect), there would be no need for morality anymore. Bradley interprets this fact as meaning that the moral life secretly aims at entering a higher stage by means of its own dissolution. At this juncture Bradley’s reflections on morality take an unexpected mystical turn, as he argues for ‘the necessity of a religious point of view’.

Such a religious outlook is not articulated in Ethical Studies. The book’s dialectical ascent thus remains incomplete, implicitly pointing to the later metaphysical investigations of Appearance and Reality (1893).

Citing this article:
Basile, Pierfrancesco. Ethics. Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924), 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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