Course Notes – H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?”

by Daniel A. Kaufman

We have finished with our survey of traditional ethical theories, in my Theories of Ethics course, and the students have been given a whopper of an exam on Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill.  I don’t envy them.  (Though neither do I envy myself, as I will be spending a good portion of my Spring Break grading those exams.)

What this means, however, is that we are on to the “contemporary” portion of the course, in which we cover material from the 20th century.  (It is a testament to just how old a discipline philosophy is that we refer to material a century old as “contemporary.”)  I won’t deny being excited about it.   Having taught philosophy at one university or college or another since 1993, it is a challenge to keep the traditional ethical theories fresh.  20th century ethics, however, is another matter entirely.  Not only is there an incredible abundance of it – and  a lot of it very good – so one can teach the period again and again with very little repetition, but it is not the sort of material that one really can teach in introductory level or general education courses, which means that one has taught it much less often, at least, if one is not a rock star at a top, R1 institution … which, of course, is the overwhelming majority of us professional philosophers.

There are many threads one could trace through the ethical theorizing of the last century, and one way, certainly, would be to follow the development of Consequentialism and Deontology in the work of contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians.  I chose not to do this, in part for selfish reasons – I would find it terribly boring, not to mention the fact that I think both traditions get morality mostly wrong – but also because what strikes me as the most significant thread in 20th century ethics is the one that involves questioning the entire modern moral philosophical paradigm and asks whether ethics largely took a wrong turn during the Enlightenment.  And as there are a number of very interesting and notably, very different reasons why one might think this, it means that even though one is following a single thread, the work that one will encounter is highly diverse in nature.  So, I’ve chosen the following 20th century works to make up the second half of my course:

H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912)

W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good. (1930)

A.J. Ayer, “Critique of Ethics and Theology,” from Language, Truth, and Logic. (1936)

G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” (1958)

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. (1981)

We finished Prichard’s essay, just before we left for Spring Break.  The class was pretty quiet throughout, though I don’t know whether this was because the piece is quite difficult (more because of its subtlety than because it is technical or complex) or because they found it underwhelming.  It might not have been the best idea to preface the lectures with the statement that Prichard’s is one of the most devastating critiques of traditional moral philosophy I have ever read, but it is, so I said it.

Prichard argues that the aims of traditional, modern moral philosophy are very similar to those of modern epistemology, in that they are an attempt to overcome skeptical doubts.   Modern epistemology, which begins with Descartes, is a response to the fact that we can doubt many of the things that we think we know to be true, and the theorizing that follows is an effort to find a procedure by which we can demonstrate that we really do know what we think we know.  And Prichard thinks that similarly, modern moral philosophy’s primary aim is to find a way by which to demonstrate that what we think is our duty, really is obligatory.

Just as the recognition that the doing of our duty often vitally interferes with the satisfaction of our inclinations leads us to wonder whether we really ought to do what we usually call our duty, so the recognition that we and others are liable to mistakes in knowledge generally leads us, as it did Descartes, to wonder whether hitherto we may not have been always mistaken. And just as we try to find a proof, based on the general consideration of action and of human life, that we ought to act in the ways usually called moral, so we, like Descartes, propose by a process of reflection on our thinking to find a test of knowledge, i.e. a principle by applying which we can show that a certain condition of mind was really knowledge, a condition which ex hypothesi existed independently of the process of reflection. (1)

The question, then, is whether or not modern moral philosophy has succeeded in identifying such a procedure.  Prichard says that there have been two broad strategies that correspond roughly to the consequentialist and the deontological approaches to morality (though the latter can be articulated in non-deontological ways as well): (a) to demonstrate that something is a duty from the fact that it produces some good; (b) to demonstrate that something is a duty, because it is the product of motives that are good.  Both strategies, in his view, fail, but the consequentialist’s failure is the easiest to see, so let’s examine it first.

Does the fact that some state of affairs is good demonstrate that I am obligated to bring it about?  It would seem obviously not, for the following is not a valid inference:

  1. x is G (good)
  2. Therefore, x is O (obligatory)

In order for 1. to justify 2., one would have to presuppose that what is good is obligatory.   With that added as a premise, the inference is valid, after all.

  1. What is G is O
  2. x is G
  3. Therefore, x is O

The trouble, of course, is that I’ve grounded an obligation in what is good, only by invoking another obligation, for which I have no ground, which means that the consequentialist effort to ground obligation ultimately fails. (2)

The deontological strategy is just as problematic, though its faults are more difficult to articulate, in part because the circle is tighter and in part because for Kant it is really willing that falls under the concept of obligation, rather than acts.  (Kant maintains that one can do what duty requires, but if one does it for the wrong kind of reason, the action does not “count,” morally speaking.)

What makes an action moral for Kant is that it is willed because it obligatory – this is just his idea of acting from duty.  And the idea is supposed to be that willing for this reason is inherently good and that this is what explains the obligatoriness of certain acts of will.   But one should see that this is just as circular as the consequentialist’s account.  One appeals to the goodness of a certain kind of motivation in order to explain why certain acts of will are obligatory, but what makes those motives good is that they are motives from obligation.  Once again, then, rather than explaining what is obligatory in terms of what is good, all that one has done is explain what is obligatory in terms of  … what is obligatory. (3)

Prichard maintains that our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie, to borrow an expression from fellow “Intuitionist” W.D. Ross – and for anyone who has ever felt morally obligated, this seems pretty hard to deny.  But it is important to understand what he is not saying.  Prichard is not suggesting that nothing can get us to feel an obligation – for example, seeing something or hearing something or learning about something.  What he is denying is that any description of such facts, no matter how complete, entails or otherwise implies any particular obligation.  In this sense, our feelings of obligation are like our experience of aesthetic properties.  It may be that getting you to attend to the pale colors, curved contours, and long, thin neck of a vase may help you to see that it is delicate, but it does not follow from the fact that something is pale colored, has curved contours, and is possessed of a long, thin neck that it is delicate. (4)

What is even more interesting, however, is what Prichard says this all means with regard to our uncertainties.  How do we know whether we really are obligated?  How do we render those pre-theoretical, intuitive moral reactions reflectively and thus, rationally, respectable? The short answer is that we don’t and we can’t, but the details are fascinating and spread well beyond our feelings of moral obligation and into the realm of belief and of epistemology, proper.

Prichard observes that there has always been something quite odd about the modern epistemological enterprise, and it is something that Descartes arguably saw himself: namely, that it is folly to search for procedures that will guarantee or even substantially increase certainty.  Suppose that I am taking a math test, and I believe that the answer to ‘3+5’ is ‘8’.  Surely, I can doubt this, because I have made arithmetic errors in the past and more fundamentally, because I know that I can reason incorrectly.

But wouldn’t it be awfully strange to reach for a proof procedure, by which to insure that my arithmetic is correct on any given occasion; say, something like the procedure offered in Russell and Whiteheads’ Principia Mathematica?  For if recognizing that I can and sometimes do reason incorrectly is what led me to doubt whether 3+5=8, wouldn’t it also cause me to doubt whatever result I came to, from working through R & W’s proof?  More so, in fact, given how much more complex the proof is than the initial sum?  And isn’t it obvious that this will be true of any proof or procedure I might come up with to “check” any belief, whether it’s that 3+5=8 or that I am currently sitting here typing this essay?

So, what do we actually do, if we doubt whether we have added a series of numbers correctly?  We do the sum again.  And what do we do, if we are not sure whether we really saw something?  We look again.  And what do we do, Prichard asks, if we doubt whether we really are obligated to do something?  We put ourselves back in the situation – either really, or mentally – and see if we feel the obligation again.  That’s all that we can do.  And the level of confidence that arises as a result is all that we legitimately ever will have. (5)


  1. Prichard, p. 2.
  2. Ibid., p. 4.
  3. Ibid., p. 6.
  4. This is the central point of Frank Sibley’s famous essay, “Aesthetic Concepts” (1959). I offered my thoughts on it here:

5.  Ibid., pp. 15=17.


  1. Hi EJ,

    If I understand labnut’s virtue ethics, there’s an intuition prior to enculturation

    Yes, but it is not a specific moral intuition. The ground moral intuition is the sense that there is a good and right(with their negations). This, I believe, precedes enculturation. Enculturation develops this basic moral intuition in two ways. It strengthens the moral intuition(or not, depending on circumstances) and it develops them into the specific set of values we call the six core virtues(courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence).

    So my position is that there are core moral intuitions that precede enculturation and these are enlarged, expanded upon by enculturation into what we call the virtues. The papers by Seligman provide strong evidence that this process is universal, across history and culture, and remarkably, producing similar outcomes.

    …since the intuition motivates prior to a consideration of consequences.

    Exactly. The key word here is ‘motivates‘. Moral decisions are often difficult decisions because they conflict with our desires or the pressures of the moment. We need the motivating force of a strong intuition to overcome these.

    Let me illustrate with another example, this time a true story 🙂

    I was a young infantryman doing guard duty by patrolling the far perimeter of a very large ammunition dump, at 2.00 am. Our opponents were actively infiltrating our positions and trying to cause as much mayhem as possible by blowing up large ammunition dumps. This had already happened, and believe me, it causes quite stupendous damage. My orders were clear and specific, stop unauthorised people and kill them if they cannot be stopped, regardless. At intervals a duty officer does the rounds, checking on the guards. He identifies himself by giving the correct response to a challenge/response password.

    And so, at about 2.00 am, what looks like a duty officer appears on the path, out of the dark. From his uniform I can see he is a parabat captain. We detest them for their violent arrogance. I assume the ready position, safety off and finger on the trigger, plus a bayonet on the end of my rifle. I issue the challenge but he does not know the response. He tries to bluster his way past me. I stand my ground. He gets angry and tries to force his way past me.

    In that cold, dark night I was suddenly confronted with an existential dilemma. Should I kill him, as my orders demanded? In any case we detested parabats. Good riddance my friends would have said. Was he really a parabat or was he a cleverly diguised infiltrator? I looked into his face, and saw a young man like myself, lean, hardened, bronzed, fit and determined. Who was he? Was he really a parabat officer from a sister unit? Why did he not know the response? Why did he want to force his way past me?

    In that terrifying moment of an irresolvable dilemma you must act immediately or die. There is no time to calculate consequences. I could have pulled the trigger and he would have died instantly from a hail of bullets. The resulting inquiry would have exonerated me. Instead I lunged at him with my bayonet, hitting him in the stomach, but I pulled my lunge sufficiently that he was only injured but not killed.

    I was given an award for my conduct(he really was a parabat officer from a sister unit). So what happened here? My moral intuitions were screaming at me – do not kill in cold blood. My encultured intuition(military discipline) demanded that I kill him, in accordance with my orders. My compassion recognised a fellow young man, probably with family, like myself. There was no time to calculate consequences so instead I acted immediately according to my developed moral intuitions, the virtues and I acted correctly. Looking back, I think I was intuitively motivated to seek a wise decision that balanced justice, discipline and courage together with compassion. But that is not to praise myself, since I merely acted intuitively at the time. Understanding came later when I analysed my conduct.

    And this is the point. Well developed moral intuitions(the virtues) act as guiding principles that tend to produce the right result under most circumstances, without careful analysis, even under trying circumstances requiring a quick decision.

    However consequentialism, since it is not based on principles, merely an end goal, requires that each situation be analysed according to the facts of the moment, accounting style, producing a balance sheet of good and harm, so that finally a choice can be made. In my example a consequentialist would have dithered, lost the plot under intense emotional duress and probably made the wrong choice. Crucially, consequentialism demands a full set of facts, time to consider and an intelligent decision maker, conditions which are not usually present.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Or, to put it another way, you had two rules (moral intuition telling you not to kill and military intuition telling you protect the ammunition and prevent mayhem by killing the threat), neither of which produced an ideal consequence. You instinctively calculated a response that balanced both goals, doing the minimal harm necessary to accomplish the best result for everyone.

    That calculation could also have been a third intuition. You were aware of the possibility of a gray area, where someone could have innocently forgotten the password, well in advance. So it was possible that the solution had already been calculated and sitting there in unconscious memory waiting to be called to action.


  3. Hi Dan, sorry about the delayed response. I’ll send an email on the essay idea.

    On generic risk, I might put things in different terms than you, but would generally agree with what you said in the context you gave. But that wasn’t the context of my reply to Marvin, which targeted his mention of a massive health crisis. With AIDS, he could not have picked a worse example for himself, or a better example for me.

    You don’t have to reply to the rest. It is more an explanation to show where I was coming from…

    Remember, Marvin said AIDS helped remind people from the 60s who believed in sexual freedom why monogamy was important: prevention of STDs. He was using a medical crisis to prop a singular moral belief. Of course, STDs predated AIDS and the 60s so the sexual revolution went on in the face of well known STD risks, not a lack of them, so already his claim was dubious. What was different about AIDS (better referred to as HIV) is that it hit a population (used to STDs), in a way that was unexpected and deadly.

    Drawing moral lessons from natural disasters is common (and irritating). Monogamy was not the only one people tried to prop with the HIV crisis. Many of these moral intuitions could be argued to protect people from “greater risk” as you just did for monogamy, and they would be right along the gross, generic line you argued (and fail on the specific lines I was arguing). My guess is if Marvin had argued for any of those others, you would have seen my counterargument for what it was meant to be, against a style of argument using specifics, rather than simply an argument for non-monogamy.

    Here is a list of other moral intuitions actually cited in the same way Marvin did, and it can be asked were these proven as well, with the social groups who defied them (most from 60s culture btw) given their rightful comeuppance?:

    Anti-homosexuality : the first used and still around (m2m sex is generally “greater risk”)

    Anti-drug : even among gays, some blamed hard drug use or use of poppers (the former is a “greater risk”, the latter not).

    Anti-race-mixing : again, even among gays some blamed having sex with racial minorities (demographically this is true –“greater risk” for some minorities–and it could be pointed out HIV would likely not have spread out of Africa, or black communities, otherwise)

    Anti-medicine : beyond just crackpot conspiracy theories, some religious types pointed to the fact people got HIV through blood products as showing the truth of religious proscriptions against “eating blood.” (yep, greater risk, and holds for many other diseases)

    Heck, even vegetarians could try to claim superiority in that without Bush Meat we might not have had the virus cross into humans. The fact is people appeal to disasters when it has some trivial, generic connection to their moral belief, yet fail to notice the specifics where they don’t hold up, or where such events run counter to their belief. So using natural disasters as props for moral intuitions, is dicey at best. In this case, it brought out the worst. None of the above (just like monogamy) turned out to be “true” about HIV, such beliefs did not grant any real protection, and basing policy (or rather non-policy) on them led to a medical disaster.

    One thing not addressed, by you or Marvin, is what this means for monogamous couples where one partner already had or gained an STD, including HIV. That assuredly increases one’s risk beyond anything a normal non-monogamous person would face. That is the riskiest situation. Unless, one is going to argue that a person should never get into a relationship, or stay in a relationship, with someone who has an STD, monogamy must be about something other than inherent STD risk reduction. Even if the reduction did not exist, even if it is worse (as it is for many couples), it would be a worthwhile thing.


  4. Hi Marvin, you are engaged in the behavior EJ described.

    Pointing to something and saying it is a tragedy or that it could have been avoided is not to make a moral claim. That you would consider it a moral claim in your theory does not mean it is so for anyone else.

    The HIV pandemic is a medical problem, a catastrophe. It is not morally “bad”, or the people morally “wrong”.

    Let me flip this on you, with a hypothetical. Let’s say at the start of the HIV crisis (very early on) we learned how to identify who was infected, but there was no foreseeable cure, or way to stop the infection. Someone could have argued that the best good/least harm would be to round up and enact euthanasia (or secluded palliative care) on all infected. By your standards that would have been a moral “good”. Certainly at the species and societal levels it would seem that way. We would not have the pandemic we are faced with.

    My position would not be that it was morally “good” or “bad”, rather I’d discuss what its effects were (did it work, did I like it, how did others feel about it) and (ethically speaking) what such decisions involved, and perhaps promoted at the individual and societal levels. My guess is many would have been revolted by the idea, rejecting it (even if proven to be “the best”), on different grounds, largely due to loyalty (family), justice, compassion, etc. That would be about process, not ends.

    I inhabit a very different theoretical framework than you.


  5. The original virtues or arete are big on military practical effectiveness. I think I have previously cited the paper on military ethical decision making in Gulf War I, where the inferior Iraqi units would either be completely destroyed or allowed to surrender depending on the commander of the US unit – both outcomes were equally acceptable in terms of US casualties etc.


  6. DB, Prior to antibiotics gonorrhea and syphilis were permanent. After antibiotics, they were easily cured and promiscuity could increase. Then came Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Monogamy (polygamy if you could afford it) is ancient. Probably as ancient as the discovery that gonorrhea and syphilis were transmitted sexually.


  7. DB, Unnecessary death or illness is considered a harm to us (or any other living species for that matter). Thus it is a “good” thing to avoid such unnecessary harms. Thus we teach our children that they “ought” to cough into their elbows rather than into a crowded classroom. That becomes “right” behavior and coughing into the crowd becomes “wrong” behavior. And in sex-ed class we teach them to wear a condom on their banana. (Or something like that. They didn’t have sex-ed when I was a kid.)

    DB: “I inhabit a very different theoretical framework than you.”

    It matters not which framework you use, so long as you remember to teach your kid to cough into his or her elbow. ALL ethical frameworks are ultimately judged by their consequences, in terms of the “best good and least harms for everyone”.


  8. Hi Marvin,

    On STDs re monogamy, you do understand that “sexual freedom” and those kinds of activities you talked about existed prior to the 60s right? Prior to antibiotics? What happened in the 60s was a phenomena in the US, where a specific cohort broke away from some temporal norms at a time where the openness of speaking about sex was changing, and there was a mass media to broadcast the changes. Some were deliberately emulating sexual practices of the (ancient) past, though they could have referenced the early 1900s, or the 1700s (libertines?), or etc.. Interest in “sexual freedom” is cyclical and has gone on in all sorts of cultures going way back to ancient times.

    Monogamy existed in cultures without major STDs, and if we are talking about prior to ancient times before the concept of bacteria and viruses, and some had strict monogamy (with regard to marriage) yet allowed for sexual activity beyond one’s primary partner.

    You are engaging in social myth about the 60s, similar to those that claim the Pill caused the 60s. Antibiotics and the Pill may have made things a bit easier (note not less risky for STDs, just less permanent), but they did not cause some social behavior that never existed before.

    And in any case, what you just said about antibiotics re STDs and the appearance of HIV (why you keep insisting on calling it AIDS I don’t know, people have HIV without AIDS and that is just as big a concern) does not challenge what I wrote. Yes, a new disease with a new set of vectors which was extremely lethal hit a population prepared for existing and very different illnesses/effects. If you do not understand we could/would still have had the HIV pandemic even if everyone were monogamous, you are not understanding what it is. In fact, it might have been worse, as we might not have seen the signs or understood what was happening (and so found a way to detect it) until much of the blood supply had been contaminated, and so… ah those people with the moral intuition against “eating blood” were right!

    I note that you did not comment on the other moral intuitions “proven right” that those 60s people forgot.


    On health re morals, you are equivocating on the term “good”. That I would prefer something, or that it might have some healthy effect, does not make it a *moral* “good”. I would not in any sense tell a child that covering their mouth when sneezing was a moral “good”, and if not they were morally “wrong”. If you are going on about social conventions having some ulterior motive, what was with the idea people should wear hats in public (used to be a thing), but not inside (still a thing)? Women should not wear pants (still a thing)? Men should not wear high heels or makeup (still a thing)? Etc.

    I’m sure a story could be constructed for each, but “best good/least harm for all”? Nah.

    “ALL ethical frameworks are ultimately judged by their consequences”

    Hahahaha. You must be jerking my chain, right? Not only is this inconsistent with history, it is logically unsound. You are simply asserting your position as some uber meta-ethical ethical theory, the judger of all judgements.

    I’m down with the idea that there are a lot of rules, ethical concepts, which may have been derived by social convention where people “negotiated” on behaviors with an eye toward a preferred consequence. That is not what I am challenging. It is the idea that that is true for all ethical/moral concepts/rules, that such concepts/rules are *true* or the *best* moral theory, and most certainly that this negotiation involved any worry about reasoning the “best good/least harm for all”. Oh yeah, and that outside of social conventions people picked up, so somewhat habitual, that this is how people act (reasoning toward such ends in the moment), or makes sense to talk about how people act.


  9. Okay, so let’s take any one of those. How about these two alternative rules, “Men should be allowed to wear makeup and high heels” versus “Men should not be allowed to wear makeup and high heels”. How would you compose an argument favoring either of those rules?


  10. Hi Marvin, sorry for the late reply. The challenge was for you, not me. For me, I suppose it would depend on the situation really. But since most dress codes are simply norms related to cultural identity, the argument would roughly be appeals to (for the former) courage, individuality, freedom; and (for the latter) loyalty, and tradition.


  11. Addition to my last reply: If it wasn’t obvious from the setup, neither set of appeals (former or latter) were more “right” or “good” than the other. There was no sense that one set should be preferred, though any individual (and portions of society) may have preferences of one set over the other. One can learn about the character of people from what they choose, as well as finding ways of convincing them toward ways you might like them to act. For full-fledged Virtue Ethicists, they might point to/argue for which traits would be most conducive to a functioning civil society, or betterment of the individual, but that does not guarantee any specific act/judgment would be “best”, especially for “all.”

    This is what prevents building some “best good/least harm for everyone” narrative.

    You can have the last word.