Richard Taylor’s “Value & the Origin of Right & Wrong [1970][1]


     Copyright © 2013 Bruce W. Hauptli


113 Taylor contends that “it is because men are the kind of beings they are—namely, what I have called conative beings—that the distinction between good and evil arises....”[2]  His notion is meant as a contrast (and supplement) to the notion of men as cognitive beings. 


1. Men as Conative Beings:


Taylor contends that while persons are cognitive beings, they are also conative beings; and an over-emphasis upon the former leads moral theorists (and other philosophers) astray. 


113-114 “To describe men as conative is not to say anything at all abstruse or metaphysical, as this bit of terminology might suggest.  It is only to call attention to a fact of human nature with which everyone is perfectly familiar: men have needs, desires, and goals; they pursue ends, they have certain wants and generally go about trying to satisfy them in various ways.” 


-114 He claims that it is more obvious that we are conative beings than it is that we are cognitive ones! 


Taylor draws our attention to three points:


(a) “...voluntary or deliberate human activity is generally interpreted as goal-directed.” 


(b) “ speaking of a man’s goals or purposes, one need not be referring to some ultimate goal....The goal of one’s activity might be exceedingly trivial and of only momentary significance...”  Of course, he notes, most individuals do have longer-range goals. 


(c) “...reason appears to enter into men’s purposeful activity primarily to devise the means to attain the ends and has little to do with ends themselves.” 


-“It is, for example, neither rational nor irrational that one should want to drink; it is merely an expression of the fact that he is thirst.  In the same sense, it is neither rational nor irrational that a man should want to swat a fly, or catch a bus, or become a physician, or attain fame as an author.” 


2. Conation as the Precondition of Good and Evil:


With this “background,” Taylor notes that many philosophers contend that some things are naturally good (or right) and others are naturally evil (or wrong).  Taylor contends that if we think of a world which is devoid of life, the notions of good and evil will have no purchase:


115 “...note that the basic distinction between good and evil could not even theoretically be drawn in a world that we imagined to be devoid of all life.  That is, if we suppose the world to be exactly as it is, except that it contains not one living thing, it seems clear that nothing in it would be good and nothing bad.  It would just be a dead world, turning through space with a lifeless atmosphere.  Having deprived our imagined world of all life, we can modify it in numberless ways, but by no such modification can we ever produce the slightest hint of good or evil in it until we introduce at least one living being capable of reacting in one way or another to the world as that being finds it.” 


Taylor notes that if we imagine a world populated by machine-like men who are rational, perceive, but which have no wants, needs, purposes, or desires, [151] “...a world inhabited by such beings would still be a world devoid of any good or evil.  Like the first world...this one might contain anything we care to put into it without there arising the least semblance of good or of evil—until we imagine it to contain at least one being having some need, interest, or purpose.” 


3. The Emergence of Good and Evil:


Taylor suggests, however, that the moment we “add” just one sentient being[3] to the world imagined thus far, we find that the distinction between good and evil begins to make sense! 


116 “Those things are good that this one being finds satisfying to his needs and desires, and those bad to which he reacts in the opposite way.  Things in the world are not merely perceived by this being, but perceived as holding promise or threat to whatever interests him....The distinction between good and evil in a world containing only one living being possessed of needs and wants arises, then, only in relation to those needs and wants, and in no way existed in their absence.  In the most general terms, those things are good that satisfy this being’s actual wants, those that frustrate them are bad.”[4] 


-Note the similarity to Hobbes here!  He contends that good and evil are defined solely in terms of an individuals’ appetites and desires.[5] 


As Taylor notes, if good and evil are defined in terms of this being’s wants and needs, then there clearly is no sense to something that satisfies them but is not good, or something which frustrates them but is not bad. 


4. The Emergence of Right and Wrong:


117 “There place for such ethical notions as right and wrong or for moral obligation so long as we imagined a world containing only one purposeful and sentient being, although the presence of such a being was enough to produce good and evil.  With the introduction of a multiplicity of such beings, however, we have supplied the foundation for these additional notions, for they are based on the fact that the aims or purposes of such beings can conflict.  Thus, two or more such beings can covet the same thing....The result is a conflict of wills, which can lead to a mutual aggression in which each stands to lose more than the thing for which they are contending is worth to either of them.” 


-117-118 Taylor notes that conflict is not the only possibility here however—the individuals’ may find that their wills coincide!  [153] “Possibilities of the first kind are loaded with the threat of evil, and those of the second kind with the promise of good, still thinking of good and evil in the sense already adduced—namely, as that which satisfies or fulfills, and that which frustrates felt needs and goals.” 


5. Right and Wrong as Relative to Rules:


Taylor points out that if needs and goals are to be satisfied and fulfilled (within the context of the possibilities of cooperation and conflict), then predictable behavior, and, hence, rules are going to be important.  What is called for, he says, are:


118 “...practices or ways of behaving that are more or less regular and that can, therefore, be expected.  They are...rational in this sense: such behavior offers the promise, to those who behave in the manner in question, of avoiding evil and attaining good.” 


6. The World As It Is:


Taylor contends that with the addition of more and more such conative and cognitive beings, and with the continued development of such rules of behavior, yields the development of societies of increasing complexity.  Here “morality” arises:


119 “How, then, do moral right and wrong arise?  The answer is fairly obvious in light of what has been said.  Right is simply the adherence to rule, and wrong is violation of it.  The notions of right and wrong absolutely presuppose the existence of rules, at least in the broad sense of rule with which we began.  That two beings should fight and injure each other in their contest for something that each covets, and thereby, perhaps, each lose the good he wanted to seize, is clearly an evil to both.  But in the absence of a rule of behavior—that is, some anticipated behavior to the contrary—no wrong has been done; only an evil has been produced....The wrong comes into being with the violation of the rule, and in no way existed ahead of the rule.  The same is, of course, true of right.” 


(end of selection)


A Critical Comment:


Given what Taylor says about right and wrong being nothing but adherence to rules, can his account allow for legitimate civil disobedience?  He does not seem to allow for the possibility of “wrong” rules, and if you can’t meaningfully speak of them being “wrong,” then it would seem you can’t speak of them being “right” either.  Does his view, then, entail some form of social relativism?  He could, of course, claim that where there are several different societies with differing “rules,” there arises both the possibilities of conflict between (and coincidence of) interests, desires, and goals.  This could allow, then, for “meta-rules” which would apply in such cases! 




B. Supplementary Material:


You may want to read the other selection from Taylor’s Good and Evil in the text: “On the Socratic Dilemma,” pp. 93-98 entitled “On the Socratic Dilemma.”[6]  There he maintains that his:


96-97 “…model of human nature…is an amalgam of intelligence and will, [which] yields an elementary distinction between what is and what ought to be.  By our reason and intelligence, drawing from the testimony of our senses, we discover what is, but what ought to be is the declaration of the will.  This is to say that what ought to be is a desideratum, the object of desire, or simply what is wanted by this or that man, by some group of men, or perhaps by all men.” 


97 “Good and evil are not, as Socrates sometimes thought, elusive or deeply hidden properties of things that only a philosopher can hope to discern.  The reason they are so hard to discern, even by a philosopher, is apparently that they are not qualities of things at all, just considered by themselves and independent of human needs and feelings.  Men pronounce things good to the extent that these things appear to promise satisfaction of their needs or the fulfillment of their aims and goals, whatever these might be.  They pronounce things bad to the extent that they appear threatening, either as obstacles to what we happen to want, or as sources of just what we do not want.  The distinction between good and evil is therefore relative to goals, ends, and wants—in a word, to the will—and has no meaning except in relation to this.” 


In his “A Critique of Kantianism, Richard Taylor maintains that:


Kant peoples a veritable utopia, which he of course does not imagine as existing, with these Ends in Themselves, and calls it the Kingdom of Ends.  Ends in Themselves are, thus, not to be thought of as those men that live and toil on the earth; them are not suffering, rejoicing, fumbling, living, and dying human beings; they are not men that anyone has ever seen, or would be apt to recognize as men if they did see them, or apt to like very much is he did recognize them.  They are abstract things, reifications of Rational nature, fabricated by Kant and now called Rational Beings or Ends in Themselves.  Their purpose, unlike that of any creature under the sun, is not to sorrow and rejoice, not to love and hate, not to beget offspring, not to grow old and die, and not to get on as best they can to such destinies as the world has allotted them.  Their purpose is just to legislate--to legislate morally and rationally for this rational Kingdom of Ends.[7] 



Notes:  (click on note number to return to the text for the note)

[1] The supplement is to Richard Taylor’s “Value and the Origin of Right and Wrong,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), eds. Louis Pojman and James Fieser (Boston: Wadsworth, 2011), pp. 113-119.  The essay originally appeared in Taylor’s Good and Evil (N.Y.: Prometheus, 1970). 

[2] Richard Taylor, “Value and the Origin of Right and Wrong” [1970], in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), ed. Louis Pojman (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2002), pp. 148-154, p. 148.  The selection originally appeared in Taylor’s Good and Evil (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1970).  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[3] That is, clearly, a “feeling” being, one which is conative! 

[4] Louis Pojman’s distinction between “absolutism,” and “objectivism” may well be important here!  Cf., Louis Pojman, “Ethical Relativism versus Ethical Objectivism,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (fifth edition), op. cit., pp. 15-19. 

[5] Cf., Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan [1651], selection in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (sixth edition), op. cit., pp. 367-379, p. 368. 

[6] Richard Taylor, “On the Socratic Dilemma,” in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, op. cit., pp. 88-93.  The essay originally appeared in Taylor’s Good and Evil, op. cit. 

[7] Richard Taylor, “A Critique of Kantianism,” in Right and Wrong Basic Readings in Ethics, ed. Christina Hoff Sommers (San Diego: Harcourt, 1986), pp. 62-69, p. 67.  The essay originally appeared in Taylor's Good and Evil, op. cit.  

Return to PHI 3601 Home-page

File revised on: 10/22/2013