A Modern Theory of Ethics:

A Study of the Relations of Ethics and Psychology

By W. Olaf Stapledon

M.A., Ph.D.



WHETHER this book is 'modern' in the good sense or the bad sense of that irritating word is for the reader to judge. I have tried to produce an ethical theory which should be both impregnated by the polliniferous wind of contemporary thought, and yet not without roots in the past. But since the roots do not appear above the ground, I may perhaps be charged with ignoring much ancient and invaluable wisdom, and lending an uncritical ear to modern jargon. There may be some truth in such a charge, since to attend closely to one thing entails a corresponding neglect of others. My chief aim has been to consider a distinctively modern and urgent, though theoretical, problem; and, through concern with the modern, I may perhaps seem to have been unduly silent about Greece and Palestine. There are, no doubt, respects in which modern ethical thought is simply a reformulation of ancient problems, and other respects in which the modern has begun to wither through the blocking of those channels whence it should receive sap from the past. But to work out this theme would be a different task from that which I have attempted. I have chosen to examine certain modern ethical theories (which themselves seek to embody what is best in ancient thought about the good), and these I have considered in relation with other contemporary movements of the mind. Yet, though the overt exfoliation of my theme is thus wholly modern in spirit, I hope I have been influenced by ancient wisdom enough to avoid merely perpetrating a fresh example of modern barbarism.

Just as modern thought, even when it is concerned wholly with contemporary matters, must ever be rooted in the past, so each writer is indebted to his teachers, even when he has no occasion to make detailed reference to them. It is a sad pleasure to acknowledge here my debt to the late Professor Alexander Mair, both in respect of his patient and critical guidance throughout my early philosophical studies and for helpful criticism of the first experiments which led up to the writing of this book. Whether he would have approved of this, its final form, I do not know. There is much in it with which he would deeply disagree, though with his usual kindly tolerance of heresy. This was bound to be; but I fear that, were he to read this book, he would also discover in it even more weaknesses of thought and obscurities of expression than those of which I am myself painfully aware. Certainly this book is the worse for lack of his continued help.

I am greatly indebted to the Master of Balliol for reading the whole manuscript and making extremely important criticisms; and to Dr. J. E. Turner and Dr. L. A. Reid, who also read the whole manuscript and gave much detailed and helpful advice. To Professor G. C. Field, also, I am grateful for valuable comments, and to Professor A. M. Carr-Saunders for advice on those chapters which refer to biological principles.

The Introduction is very largely based on an article which appeared in The Open Court of April 1927. Most of Chapters IV and VI appeared as two articles in The International Journal of Ethics of July 1926 and April 1928. I wish to thank the Editors of these journals for permission to reprint.

W. O. S.

January 1929

I. The Need For Ethics

II. Self-Fulfilment as The Ground Of Ethics

III. Criticism of the Self-Fulfilment Theory

IV. Pleasure as Constitutive of Good

V. Good as an Unique Quality

VI. Teleology in Ethics

VII. Tendency in Physics and Biology

VIII.Tendency in Psychology

IX. Psychical Conflict

X. Objective Activity as the Ground of Ethics

XI. Determinism and Free Will

XII. Essentials of the Concrete Ideal

XIII.Reality and Admiration

XIV. Moral Zeal, Disillusion, and Ecstasy

XV. Ecstasy and Ethical Theory

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