Conduct Theory and the Prospects of Moral Philosophy

Written for the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division colloquium in 2006.



This paper revisits the effort to put moral knowledge on a secular and scientific basis by the analysis of “conduct.” Starting from the works of Herbert Spencer in the 1870’s, mutating through the works of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, and terminating in the works of John Dewey, “Conduct Theory” attempted to build ethical understanding on the analysis of the elements and contexts of human “conduct.” We try to give an impression of what analyses and results of Conduct Theory were like by looking briefly at Spencer and Dewey, and we suggest that contemporary ethical theorists might benefit from a critical scrutiny of their work, along with others in this line of thought.

An enduring problem for ethical theory or moral philosophy during the last century has been the specification of its subject matter. A guiding theme during this period has been the requirement that the basis of the moral life and moral understanding would be secular. Up until about 1910 there was an additional requirement that ethics should become a science, an authentic body of knowledge. This latter requirement could be understood as the demand that ethical theory become a logical extension of one or more of the particular sciences, or as the mere demand that ethical theory be epistemically organized in the manner characteristic of any science, classically understood. The latter was the usual way in which the demand to be “scientific” was understood around the opening of the last century, though with a few notable exceptions. G. E. Moore was the last of the important ethical theorists whose explicit and emphatic aim was to develop ethical theory into a science. His repeated complaint against those who committed the “naturalistic fallacy” was that that “fallacy” made it impossible to put ethics into a scientific form. But to speak of ethics as a science was the most common practice among ethical theorists during Moore’s early period and immediately before him. As a serious intellectual endeavor, what else could ethics be? Anything short of that would have degraded the inquiry, the work to be done.

A major—indeed, the overwhelmingly popular—line of ethical theorizing that developed in response to these requirements during the late 1800’s, but which has long since disappeared from the view of those working in the field of moral philosophy, is what I shall here call “Conduct Theory” (CT) It took “conduct” as the primary subject matter of ethical theorizing and elaborated a theory of “conduct” that was both secular and (hopefully) scientific. It arose out of the work of Herbert Spencer, developed further through the works of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, and achieved its most lasting presence in the writings of John Dewey—though possibly its best philosophical exposition was in Samuel Alexander’s Moral Order and Progress (1889/1906 2nd ed).[1]

Spencer undertook to derive something very like J. St. Mill’s hedonistic utilitarianism from Biology. He declared that his “…ultimate purpose, lying behind all proximate purposes, has been that of finding for the principles of right and wrong in conduct at large, a scientific basis.” (p. v)[2] He was—in the late 1870’s—alarmed “that moral injunctions are losing the authority given by their supposed sacred origin,” and held that “the secularization of morals is becoming imperative.” (p. vi) To supply what he regards as the urgent need, he starts from the relationship of whole and part, asserting “that there can be no correct idea of a part without a correct idea of the correlative whole.” (p. 3) This is all the more true where the whole is an “organic” one and the nature and function of the part is intricately interwoven with those of the whole and of its other parts. This reliance upon “organic” wholes and parts, with its implication of the internality of relations—at least in some important cases—becomes an enduring element in CT, though it quickly distances itself from any effort straightforwardly to derive ethical principles from the positive sciences.

“The whole of which Ethics forms a part,” according to Spencer, “is the whole constituted by the theory of conduct in general….” (p. 5) So his first task is to define conduct, and in a way that locates it among biological phenomena generally. Conduct consists in purposeful actions, not mere motions of living bodies. “Conduct in its full acceptation must be taken as comprehending all adjustments of acts to ends,…” (p. 5) But what part of conduct is subject to “ethical judgment”? A large part of ordinary human conduct, even, is ethically indifferent. The actions which are distinguished into morally right and wrong are those that make some significant difference to the human beings affected. Thus, the “…conduct with which morality is not concerned passes into conduct which is moral or immoral, by small degrees and in countless ways.” (p. 6)

To get a “scientific grasp” of moral conduct, Spencer holds, we must see it “as part of universal conduct—conduct as exhibited by all living creatures…. We must interpret the more developed by the less developed.” (pp. 6-7) So we must study the evolution of conduct. (p. 7) This is how he lays a scientific basis for ethical principles. He studies the increasing scope and complexity of “adjustments of acts to ends,” beginning with the simplest forms of life, continuing through the higher mammals, including the human, and through degrees of civilized life and the social evolution of the human species, observing constant increases in the “number and efficiency of the adjustments of acts to ends” (p. 13)—favoring not just prolongation of life, but also increase in the “amount of life.” (p. 14) This latter seems to be a matter of the degree of complexity and intensity in the process of living. For the human this requires, he thinks, the elimination of aggression between and within groups, and the pervasive implementation of mutual aid. “The limit of evolution can be reached by conduct only in permanently peaceful societies,” and “beyond so behaving that each achieves his end without preventing others from achieving their ends, the members of a society may give mutual help in the achievement of ends…. Whatever facilitates the making of adjustments by each, increases the totality of the adjustments made, and serves to render the lives of all more complete.” (p. 19)

Thus, “… Ethics has for its subject-matter, that form which universal conduct assumes during the last stages of its evolution.” (p. 20) And “…Conduct gains ethical sanction in proportion as the activities,…are such as do not necessitate mutual injury or hindrance, but consist with, and are furthered by, co-operation and mutual aid.” (p. 20) Good acts are those “conducive to life , in self or others, and bad those which directly or indirectly tend towards death, special or general. (p. 26) This, for Spencer, turns out to be equivalent to “asserting that conduct is good or bad according as its total effects are pleasurable or painful.” (p. 28)

Now it is difficult, today, to appreciate the degree of influence that Spencer exercised on subsequent developments in ethical theory, and the popularity he enjoyed in his own day. Certainly, his hedonism and his attempt to derive ethics from biology were almost universally rejected by the “conduct” theorists who came later. This was especially true of Green and Bradley, and they were the ones who set the pattern of detailed ethical analysis of conduct for CT as a movement. Beginning from the description and analysis of moral experience, in the hands of Green and Bradley CT develops a rich view of the human self that is essentially substantialist (with many qualifications), anti-empiricist (against Hume, Mill and Spencer), and communitarian and historical. It relentlessly attacks and rejects the atomism that fragments the self internally and isolates it from others, from society, from the world and from the world-historical process in general. This is done by constant applications of the internality of relations or organic wholes and parts. All of this assumed, “evolution” is then re-introduced, not as “natural selection,” a biological matter. It now becomes a cosmic principle which makes all “natural” boundaries fluid and malleable, and, especially, allows for or even mandates moral progress. Moral progress is an issue that looms large in the 19th and early 20th Century thought, dealt with, in different ways, by Hegel, Comte and Mill, but becomes almost impossible to articulate, much less theoretically address, in Moore and after.

Any accurate and useful exposition of the views of Green and Bradley is impossible to achieve in a short space. Their works are written in an investigative, not an expository mode, and their results are more clearly seen in expository works designed to make those results, along with the basic arguments for them, available to students in the setting of higher education as well as to thoughtful readers generally. So I am going to focus here on the exposition of CT in John Dewey’s Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics, first published in 1891.[3] Dewey’s exposition has had the benefit of exposure to numerous well-known reworkings of CT from its sources in Spencer and Green and Bradley over a period of years in the academic and professional contexts of the 1880’s.

“Ethics,” Dewey states, “is the science of conduct, understanding by conduct man’s activity in its whole reach.” (p. 241) The phraseology, “science of conduct,” occurs verbatim in most systematic treatments of the field of ethics during this period. For example, in books by John MacKenzie, James Seth, J. H. Muirhead, Charles D’Arcy, Leslie Stephen, and others. In every case “conduct” is immediately distinguished from mere movement or action, externally viewed. Very much along the lines indicated by Spencer, Dewey remarks that “Conduct implies more than something taking place; it implies purpose, motive, intention; that the agent knows that he is about, that he has something which he is aiming at.” (Dewey 242 and Alexander 38-39) “The adjustments of acts to ends,” is what Spencer said, but in Dewey and those running parallel with him, what “adjustment” means is given a much more elaborate treatment. The “inner” factors of the “adjustment” are distinguished and put into internal relationships to one another, and these all in turn are set into an organic whole involving the human body, the natural and social environment, and the processes of human history. It is in the elaboration of the nature of conduct that internal relations and the organic whole and its parts come heavily into play. The inner dimension of conduct involves ideas, desires, motives, feelings, volitions, habits. But these take on their specific characters as interrelated with one another and with motions of the body in a social context and the external consequences thereof. The richest part of CT consists in the amazing amount of detail into which it goes in spelling out the natures and interrelations of all the internal and external factors in conduct, and the bearing these have upon the understanding and practice of the moral life.

Dewey itemizes “the various sides and factors of conduct in order to see where the distinctly ethical element is to be found.” (p. 243) The most important elements in conduct are:

The motive.
The feelings or sentiments involved.
The consequences of the act.
The character of the agent.


The motive is the end in view, which he describes as “the ideal element of action,” or the reason for which the act is performed. The feelings (sentiments) are the moving or impelling cause. They are present and real, hence can be causal. The motive is future and therefore ideal: something to be realized through action. Feelings considered in abstraction from activity are morally insignificant. “Benevolence as a mere feeling has no higher moral value than malevolence. But if it is directed upon action its gets a value at once; let the end, the act, be right, and benevolence becomes a name for a moral disposition—a tendency to act in the due way…Nothing is more important than to distinguish between mere sentiments, and feelings as an element in conduct.” (245)

The use of the word “mere” to refer to something outside of a whole that gives it a different nature and function is a constant reoccurrence in most CT writings. Thus, consequences as “mere” consequences of my action “are wholly irrelevant morally.” (245) But foreseen consequences are different. “Just in the degree that any consequence is considered likely to result from an act, just in that degree it gets moral value, for it becomes part of the act itself.” (245-246) And apart from the foreseen and intended consequences, “…the action is a mere abstraction, having no content at all. The conceived results constitute the content of the act to be performed. They are not merely relevant to its morality, but are its moral quality…. The foreseen, the ideal consequences are the end of the act, and as such form the motive. (246)

This passage allows one to see in action the organic whole/internal relations pattern that fundamentally characterizes the analyses of the “Conduct” Theorists. It is also applied to conduct and character. “Character and conduct are, morally, the same thing, looked at first inwardly and then outwardly. Character, except as manifest in conduct, is a barren ideality…. Our only way of telling the nature of character is the conduct that issues from it. But,…conduct is mere outward formalism, excepting as it manifests character. To say that a man’s conduct is good, unless it is the manifestation of a good character, is to pass a judgment which is self-contradictory.” (246) In this type of analysis identities are asserted where what is meant are necessary connections based upon internal (organic) relations.

With this understanding of, and way of working upon, “conduct” and its basic elements, Dewey devotes most of his book to a “critical” elaboration of the “fundamental ethical notions”—e.g. the good, obligation, freedom, the ethical “world” as social reality, and the concrete moral life of the individual: conscience, moral commands and rules, moral ideals, goodness as a personal struggle, and the virtues. Once one has caught the drift of “organic” analysis, one is not surprised to learn that the good as pleasure or happiness is a “mere abstraction,” and that the true summum bonum that is the end of all morally good action is a certain kind of whole life, in which pleasure or happiness play a role, but not as the end in view of conduct. And, of course, one finds that the life in question is a social existence formed around common goods of a life together with others. The individual human being, as a supposedly self-contained unit, is also a “mere abstraction” and not anything real.

At each stage, the argument has the same basic movement: A description of something as one main component or structure of “conduct” is found to fit into conduct as truly lived only via qualities it takes on in a certain type of whole, but not as lifted out and taken “by itself.” Utilitarianism and Kantianism, for example, are convicted of treating components of conduct—happiness or duty, etc.—in abstraction from the flow of life that gives them a genuine moral bearing. 

Here I have attempted to bring to mind a very rich and, at one time, influential form of ethical theorizing which is now almost totally lost to sight. It is a form that pays careful attention to the details of the moral life and moral experience, under the heading of “conduct.” Many reasons might be found for saying that it currently enjoys an ignominy that it richly deserves. Still, it might be possible to learn something important from it; and, in any case, it is hard to find anyone with a voice in current discussions of ethical theory who is very happy about where we have come to in the field—all due deference given to the distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics. This situation is not new. From Moore on, we have largely been occupied with identifying fallacies and mistakes, real or alleged, that some others have made. In 1952 Roderick Firth pointed out that the concentration of effort in the first half of the 20th Century on problems concerning the analysis of ethical statements “…by many acute analytical minds has not produced any general agreement with respect to the solution of these problems…<but> …it seems likely … has resulted in greater disagreement than ever before…”—after which he cheerfully proceeds to give his analysis.[4] And everyone seems to know by heart Elizabeth Anscombe’s morose claims (of 1958) that it is “not profitable for us at present to do moral philosophy; that it should be laid aside at any rate until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, in which we are conspicuously lacking…,” and that “the differences between the well-known English writers on moral philosophy from Sidgwick to the present day are of little importance.”[5] I cannot imaging that she would find events since 1958 any more encouraging for the prospects of moral philosophy than those of the earlier 1900’s.

Much in the style and the strategy of the Conduct Theorists has to be left aside. No doubt about that. And there are many epistemological issues having to do with our cognitive access to human conduct and its elements that would have to be worked out. I suppose that is something close to what Anscombe refers to as gaining “an adequate philosophy of psychology.” Given all that, however, its seems there is a great deal to be learned for moral understanding and practice today by taking “conduct” as the primary subject matter of moral philosophy and using our best, hopefully unprejudiced, methods of inquiry upon it. The writers of the CT period might then be of considerable use to us.


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