Thomas Hill Greenís Prolegomena to Ethics

Thomas Hill Greenís Prolegomena to Ethics (1884) presents a theory of human knowledge and of the freedom of the human will, as well as a theory of the motives of moral conduct. Green emphasizes that this approach to ethics, which claims that moral conduct is motivated by a desire for perfection and by a desire for the common good, has practical value when complex moral questions cannot be answered by intuition.

The Prolegomena to Ethics is divided into four books: "Book I. Metaphysics of Knowledge;" "Book II. The Will;" "Book III. The Moral Ideal and Moral Progress;" and "Book IV. The Application of Moral Philosophy to the Guidance of Conduct."

Book I discusses the spiritual principle in nature and in human knowledge, and describes how this spiritual principle is determined by an eternal consciousness. Book II discusses the freedom of the human will, and the relation between desire, intellect, and will. Book III describes the origin and development of the moral ideal, and Book IV describes the practical value of the moral ideal.

Green argues that reality cannot be defined by contrasting it with unreality, because unreality is nothingness. Reality is a system of relations between things, and things are determined by relations. Nothing exists without relations. Things are nothing but what they are determined to be by their relations with other things.

Facts are not sensations or feelings, but are relations between things. Facts determine the nature of sensations and feelings. Things may be known by both thought and feeling. Things are not merely ideas, nor are they merely the material conditions of sensation. Feeling cannot be separated from thought, and thought cannot be separated from feeling.

Reality consists of the relations between things, but relations between things can only exist for a thinking consciousness. Every object of consciousness is determined by relations between facts, but the relations between facts require a thinking consciousness to establish their reality.

Thus, Green explains that an understanding of the metaphysics of knowledge is necessary for an understanding of the metaphysics of moral action.1 The relations between objects of consciousness include the relations between objects of desire. While consciousness determines the nature of reality, the motives which are acted upon by consciousness determine the nature of moral action.

According to Green, moral action is not determined merely by instinct, but by the idea of a good to be gained or of an evil to be avoided.2 Moral action is also determined by personal character and situation, in that it expresses a personís character as he or she responds to a given situation. The moral quality of an action may be judged by the motives of the action. For Green, the consequences of an action are secondary in determining its moral quality.

Green distinguishes between desire and will as modes of volition. A desire may be defined as a wish for something, or as a wish for the realization of an object. In contrast, an act of will may be defined as a direction for action in order to realize an object. An act of will may comply with, or resist, the desire for an object.

The desire for an object may be in harmony with, or in conflict with, the desire for another object. Compatible desires may facilitate a moral purpose or action. Incompatible desires may hinder a moral purpose or action. Green argues that an act of will is not necessarily an act of choosing between competing objects of desire. An act of will may not be a continuation of some previously existing desire, but may express the freedom of the will to determine itself.

According to Green, an act of will implies a consciousness of the self, a consciousness of a desired object, and a consciousness of a situation or conditions necessary for the desired object to be realized. Moral action requires practical thinking. But practical thinking cannot be entirely separated from speculative thinking, just as thinking cannot be separated from feeling or willing.

Green argues that the objects of 'good will' differ from the objects of 'bad will.' The attainment of objects of good will produces pleasure, while the attainment of objects of bad will produces pain. Good or bad will is expressed by good or bad intentional action. Intentional action may be judged as good or bad, depending on whether it produces greater or lesser pleasure or pain.

In Hedonistic or Utilitarian ethics, the moral quality of an action is judged by the degree to which the action produces pleasure or pain. The consequences of an action, rather than its motive, determine the moral quality of the action.

A different point of view is provided by Kant's philosophy. In Kantís ethical theory, the moral quality of an action is judged by whether the action is consistent with a moral law, and by whether the action is performed for the sake of that moral law. Good will is seen as an end in itself, and not merely as a means to producing good moral action.

Green argues that the attainment of an object of desire may bring pleasure, but that pleasure is not always the object of desire. The object of desire may be something which is for a common or absolute good. A common good is something which is good for many people and not just for a particular individual or class of society. An absolute good is something which is good under any conditions. Thus, an absolute good is an unconditional good which is attained by good will. Good will promotes the desire to fulfill moral duty.

According to Green, a moral ideal is something which transcends any particular object of desire. A moral ideal has as its object the perfection of humankind. The practical consciousness of the moral ideal is a will to perfection.

How can we know what will be the ultimate perfection of humankind? How can we determine whether an action is good, if we do not yet know the nature of the ultimate good? Greenís answer is that we do not have to know the nature of the ultimate good in order to make our actions 'better.' We can improve our own conduct, even though we may not be able to fully define the nature of the ultimate good which is the goal of moral conduct.

Green emphasizes that the concept of goodness is not the same as the concept of pleasure. The concept of goodness may, in some cases, be a motive for the renunciation of pleasure. Devotion to something good may, in some cases, require a submission to pain, rather than a pursuit of pleasure.

The question then arises whether it is virtuous to renounce pleasure, if pleasure is intrinsically good (though it might be argued that pleasure is not intrinsically good). Greenís answer is that renunciation of pleasure is not in itself virtuous, unless it arises from a desire for good. Virtue is founded on the will to be good. Devotion to a common good may be compatible with the experience of pleasure; but pleasure is not always the goal of moral action.

The theory that pleasure is the only possible object of desire implies that moral conduct is good because it causes pleasure. Moral action is only good because it causes pleasure, and not because it is good in itself. The best mode of action is that which causes the greatest sum of pleasure and the least sum of pain. Green rejects this theory, arguing that goodness is intrinsically desirable, and that the common good is thus an object of moral action. The pleasure which is anticipated in attaining goodness is not the only reason why goodness is desirable. Goodness is not simply a form of pleasure, or the satisfaction of desire. Goodness is the full realization of the moral capacity of humankind.

Green concludes that the absolute or ultimate good is revealed as a perfection of the human spirit. The idea of the human spirit is perfected by the consciousness of an eternal spirit, which is conscious of itself and of all spiritual being. Thus, the absolute or ultimate good is realized by an eternal mind. This eternal mind or spirit gives reality to the ideals of the human spirit.


1Thomas Hill Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, edited by A.C. Bradley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1884), p. 90.
2Ibid., p. 96.


Green, Thomas Hill. Prolegomena to Ethics. Edited by A.C. Bradley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1884.

Copyright© 2002 Alex Scott

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