Ladies & Gentlemen.
Before I begin to speak about my subject proper let me make a few introductory remarks. I feel I still have great difficulties in communicating my thoughts to you & I think some of them may be diminished by mentioning them to you beforehand. The first one, which almost I needn't mention, is, that English is not my native tongue & my expression therefore often lacks that precision & subtlety which would be desirable if one talks about a difficult subject. All I can do is to ask you to make my task easier by trying to get at my meaning in spite of the faults which I will constantly be committing against the English grammar etc. The second difficulty which I will mention is this, that probably many of you come up to this lecture of mine with slightly wrong expectations. And to set you right in this point I will say a few words about the reason for choosing the subject I have chosen: When your former secretary honoured me by asking me to read a paper to your society, my first thought was that I would certainly do it & my second
thought was that if I should || was to have an || the opportunity to speak to you I should speak about something which I am keen on communicating to you & that I should not misuse this opportunity to give you a lecture about, say, logic. I say I call this a misuse for to explain a scientific matter to you it would want || need a course of lectures & not an hour's paper. An other alternative would have been to give you what's called a popular -scientific lecture, that is a lecture intended to make you believe that you understand a thing which actually you don't understand, & to gratify what I believe to be one of the lowest desires of modern people, namely the superficial curiosity about the latest discovery || discoveries in || of science. I rejected these alternatives & decided to talk to you about a subject which seems to me to be of general importance, hoping that this || it may help to clear up your thoughts about this subject (even if you should entirely disagree with what I will say about it). My third & last difficulty is one which, in fact, adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures & it is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the way || road he is lead & the
goal which it leads to. That's to say: he either thinks „I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at” or else he thinks „I see what he's driving at, but how on earth is he going to get there”. All I can do is, again, to ask you to be patient & to hope that in the end you may see both the road || way & where it leads to. – I will now begin. My subject, as you know, is Ethics & I will adopt the explanation of that term which Prof. Moore has given in his book Principia Ethica. He says: „Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good”. Now I'm going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics. And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous terms || expressions each of which could be substituted for Prof. Moore's || the above definition, & by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different
faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by shewing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical – say – Chinese face so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will place || put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common & these are the characteristic features of Ethics. Now instead of saying Ethics is the enquiry into what is good I could have said it is || Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into what is the right life || way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with. Now the first thing that strikes one about all these expressions is that each of them is actually used in two very different senses. I will call them the trivial or relative sense on the one hand & the ethical or absolute sense on the other. If for instance
I say that this is a good chair this means that the chair serves a certain predetermined purpose & the word good here has only meaning so far as this purpose has been previously fixed upon. In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. So || Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty in a certain degreeable || with a certain degree of dexterity. And similarly if I say that it's important for me not to catch cold I mean that catching a cold produces certain describable disturbances in my life & if I say that this is the right road I mean that it's the right road relative to a certain goal. Used in this way these expressions don't present any difficult or deep problems. But this is not how Ethics uses them. Supposing that I could play tennis & one of you saw me playing & said „well you play pretty badly ” & suppose I answered „I know, I'm playing badly but I don't want to play any better”. All, the other man could say would be || is || would be „Ah then that's all right”. But suppose I had told one of you
a preposterous lie & he came up to me & said „You're behaving like a beast” & then I were to say „I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better”. Would then the man || he then say „Ah, then that's all right”? Certainly not; he would say „well, you ought to want to behave better”. Here you have an absolute judgement of value, whereas the first instance was one of a relative judgment. The essence of this difference seems to me to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts & can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying „this is the right way to Granchester I could equally well have said „this is the way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time”; this man is a good runner simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, & so forth. Now what I wish to contend is, that although all judgments of relative value can be shewn to be mere statements of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value. Let me explain this:
Suppose one of you were an omniscient person & therefore knew all the movements of all the bodies in the world dead or alive & that he also knew all the states of mind of all human beings that ever lived. And suppose this man wrote all he knew in a big book. Then this book would contain the whole description of the world; and what I want to say is, that this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment. It would of course contain all relative judgments of value & all true scientific propositions & in fact all true propositions that can be made. But all the facts described in this world would, as it were, stand on the same level & in the same way all propositions stand on the same level. There are no propositions which, in any absolute sense, are sublime, important, or trivial. Now perhaps some of you will agree to that & be reminded of Hamlet's words: nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so! But this again could lead to a misunderstanding. What Hamlet says seems to imply that good
& bad, though not qualities of the world outside us, are attributes of our states of mind. But what I mean is that a state of mind, so far as we mean by that a fact which we can describe, is in no ethical sense good or bad. If for instance in our world-book we read the description of a murder, with all its details physical & psychological the mere description of these facts will contain nothing which we could call an ethical judgment || proposition. The murder will be on exactly the same level as any other event, for instance the falling of a stone. Certainly the reading of this description might cause us pain or rage or any other emotion or we might read about the pain or rage caused by this murder in other people when they heard of it, but there will simply be facts, facts, & facts but no Ethics. – And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime, & above all other subject matters.
I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics, which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. – Our words, used, as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning & sense, natural meaning & sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is super natural & our words will only express facts; as a teacup will hold only || only hold a teacup full of water & if I were to pour out a gallon over it. – I said that so far as facts & propositions are concerned there is only relative value & relative good, right etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example. The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end & it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression „the, absolutely, right road”. I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for || of not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs would be one which everybody,
independent of his tastes and inclinations, would, necessarily, bring about or be ashamed || feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. No state of affairs has in itself, what I would like to call, the coercive power of an absolute judge. – Then what do || have all of us who, like myself, are still tempted to use such expressions as „absolute good”, „absolute value” etc., what have we then in mind & what do we try to express? Now whenever I try to make this clear to myself it is natural that I should recall ◇◇◇ cases in which I would certainly use these expressions & I am then in the situation ¤ in which you would be if, for instance, I were to give you a lecture on the psychology of pleasure. What you would do then would be to try and recall some typical situation in which you always felt pleasure. For, bearing this situation in mind, all I should say to you about pleasure would become concrete &, as it were, controllable. One man would perhaps choose as his stock example the sensation when walking || taking a walk on a fine summer's day. Now in this situation I am if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value. And there, in my case, it always happens that the idea of one particular
experience presents itself to me which therefore is, in a sense, my experience par excellence & this is the reason why, in talking to you now, I will use this experience as my first & foremost example. (As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter & others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall to your the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation. The || I believe the best way of describing it || this experience || it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as „how extraordinary that anything should exist” or „how extraordinary that the world should exist”. I will mention an other experience straight away which I also know & which others of you might be acquainted with: it is, what one might call, the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say „I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens”. Now let me consider these experiences, because || for, I believe, they exhibit the very characteristics we try to get clear about. And there the first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences
is nonsense! If I say „I wonder at the existence of the world I am misusing language. Let me explain this: It has a perfectly good & clear sense to say that I wonder at something being the case, we all understand what it means to say that I wonder at the size of a dog which is bigger than anyone I have ever seen before, or at any thing which, in the ordinary || common sense of the word, is extraordinary. In every such case I wonder at something being the case which I could conceive not to be the case. I wonder at the size of this dog because I could conceive of a dog of another, namely the ordinary size, at which I should not wonder. To say „I wonder at such & such being the case has only sense if I can imagine it not to be the case. In this sense one can wonder at the existence of, say, a house when one sees it & hasn't visited it for a long time & has imagined that it had been pulled down in the meantime. But it is nonsense to say that I wonder at the existence of the world, because I cannot imagine it not existing. I could, of course, wonder at the world round me being as it is. If for instance I had this experience while looking up into the blue sky, I could wonder at the sky being blue as opposed to the case when it's clouded. But
that's not what I mean. I am wondering at the sky being, whatever it is. One might be tempted to say that what I am wondering at is a tautology, namely at the sky being blue or not blue. But then it's just nonsense to say that one is wondering at a tautology. Now the same applies to the other experience which I have mentioned, the experience of absolute safety. We all know what it means in ordinary life to be safe. I am safe in my room, when I can't be run over by an omnibus. I am safe if I have had whooping cough & can't therefore get it again. To be safe essentially means that it is physically impossible that certain things should happen to me, & therefore it's nonsense to say that I am safe whatever happens. Again this is a misuse of the word „safe” as the other example was a misuse of the word „existence” or „wondering”. Now I want to impress on you that a certain characteristic misuse of our language runs through all ethical & religious expressions. All these expressions seem, prima facie, to be just similes. Thus it seems that when we are using the word right in an ethical sense, although what we mean, is not right in its trivial sense, it's something similar, and if || when
we say „this is a good fellow”, although the word good here doesn't mean what it means in the sentence „this is a good football player” there seems to be some analogy || similarity. And when we say „this man's life was valuable” we don't mean it in the same sense in which we would speak of some valuable jewellery but there seems to be some sort of connection || analogy. Now all religious terms seem in this sense to be used as similes, or allegorically. For when we speak of God & that he sees everything & when we kneel & pray to him all our terms & actions seem to be parts of a great & elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc. etc. But this simile || allegory also extends to || over the description of || describes the experiences which I have just referred to. For, the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; & the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty & again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct. Thus in ethical & religious language we seem
constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can express || describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile & to express || describe the facts without it. Now in this || our case as soon as we try to drop the simile & simply to state the facts behind it || which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be a simile, now seems to be mere nonsense. – Now the three experiences which I have mentioned to you (and I could have added some more || others) seem to those who have experienced them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute, value. But when I say they are experiences, surely, they are facts; they have taken place then & there, lasted a certain definite time & consequently are describable. And so from what I have said some minutes ago I must admit it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value. And here I have arrived at the main point of this paper, || : it is the paradox that an experience, a fact should seem to have absolute value. And I will make my point still more acute by saying „it is the paradox that an experience, a fact,
should seem to have supernatural value. Now there is a way in which I would be tempted to meet this paradox: || . Let me first consider again our first experience of wondering at the existence of the world & let me describe it in a slightly different way: We all know, what in ordinary life would be called a miracle. It obviously is simply an event the like of which we have never yet seen. Now suppose such an event happened. Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head & began roaring || to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine. Now whenever we would || should have recovered from our surprise, what I would suggest would be to fetch a doctor & have the case scientifically investigated & if it were not for hurting him I would have him vivisected. And where would the miracle have got to? For it is clear that when we look at it in this way everything miraculous would have || has disappeared; unless what we mean by this term is merely that a fact has not yet been explained by science, which again means that we have hitherto failed to group this fact with others in a scientific system. This shews that it is absurd to say then „science has proved that
there are no miracles”. No, || The truth is that the scientific way of looking at a fact is not the way to look at it as a miracle. For, imagine whatever fact you may, it is not in itself miraculous in the ¤ absolute sense of that term. For we see now that again we have been using the word „miracle” in a relative & an absolute sense. And I will now describe the experience of wondering at the existence of the world by saying: it is the experience of seeing the world as a miracle. Now I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times & not at other times. For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express & that all we say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense. –
     Now the answer to all this will seem perfectly clear to many of you. You will say: Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value & importance, this simply
shews that by these words we don't mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts & that all it comes to is, that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical & religious expressions. – Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description or explanation that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world & that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency & I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage
is perfectly, absolutely, hopeless. – Ethics, so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply & I would not for my life ridicule it.