543. H. B. W. Joseph to Harrod , 13 April 1936 [a]

[Replies to a letter not found, continues at 544 R]

as from 33, Northmoor Road, Oxford #

13 April 1936

Dear Harrod,

I'm so glad you wrote--not so much because of the kind way you write about old days, though that I do appreciate very much, as because of what I am going to say.

Yes, I've read your article more than once: [1] I had heard that you were publishing one in "Mind", & it was the first thing I turned to. What is more, I've written a reply. [2] At first I thought of writing you a long letter; then I hesitated to inflict that on you, though I remember once before having correspondence on remarks you made about Ethics at, I think, the Philosophical Society. [3] The incident you tell me of, from New Coll. times I don't remember, though I do the fact of disputing rather drastically with you in these matters. [4]

Well, I've written this paper, though I mean to re-write it; & having been asked if I had anything I could read at a philosophers' dinner when term begins, said I would read that. And I felt rather mean because you will not be there. For it's wholly an attack, & I seemed to be hitting you behind your back. Here's the last sentence: "I conclude that a chapter on `the system of moral philosophy in Mr. Harrod's paper' should read like the celebrated chapter on snakes in Ireland. There is no moral philosophy in Mr. Harrod's paper."

Now I don't mean, & I am sure I didn't when you brought your essay, to impugn your principles of action--not the media axiomata. But with the results of your reflections on these I disagree violently. I certainly should not charge you with intellectual obtuseness. Your mind moves easily among the puzzles of money & exchange where I hobble painfully. But I believe you're all wrong in this matter. I think a lot of economics has gone wrong because Marshall & Edgeworth thought Mill & Sidgwick's moral philosophy was all right. It led them to think they were measuring where measurement is impossible. You write that under my bombardments in the past (that is not a quotation) you "became convinced that good would after all only be defined in terms which presuppose an understanding of it". I wouldn't put it quite like that. Some understanding of it is presupposed in the case of the word; but I don't say you can define it. It's you who say that; that for an act to be morally good is for it to promote another's ends. [5] Then you say that the action includes the motive [6] --they must be promoted for their own sake. But you don't preserve the distinction between act & action, naturally enough; it won't work. But the same act may frustrate other men's ends. So really, I think, you fall back on the notion--quite untenable--of a maximum quantity of ends. And nothing is good except actions directed to promoting the maximum quantity of others' ends: that is what we mean by calling these actions good--not that their being good is a character they have because of being so directed. So let's call them maxpro, & see if that will do as well. And then you pass to obligation. [7] You say right can be defined too, [8] but you don't define "right" nor "obligation"--I don't complain of you not doing so, but only of you saying you can. What I should say of the particular form of your attempt to justify on utilitarian grounds the obligatoriness of the "indirect virtues", I'm not yet quite sure. But in your last paragraph you try to show how reason can "assist in establishing the common interest as the end". [9] I don't think you are entitled to talk about a common interest. If I promote more ends of others than I frustrate, I don't promote the common interest of those others. But that by the way. My point is that you equivocate in your notion of "expressing neutrality as between an individual & another". [10] Your philosophy leads you to the conclusion that you have no grounds for saying that A's ends are better than B's. Then you must not "favour" any particular person in judging more highly of his ends. This is a mere intellectual matter. You treat that as if it were that you must not favour him in trying to promote his ends more than another's, & how your "neutrality" is not like that of a man who says no rose is redder than another in the dark, but like that of a man who tries to be fair in marking Schools papers as between his own & another's pupils. You pass from saying that certain premises lead to certain conclusions to laying down a premise: from logical necessity to moral obligation. Really you have no ground for asserting any. You neither define it nor take it as a matter of self-evident knowledge. No ends are good or bad (maxpro on the reverse), therefore we ought to promote as many of other people's as possible. Why? Omit the "therefore", & you will at least offer a proposition which I can reflect on. But I should still ask for some reason why. I can't find any unless you will tell me that good has some other sense than "promoting others' ends". If doing that is good, perhaps I ought to do it; but if doing it is only promoting others' ends, again why ought I?

I think your error (if I am right in calling it so) is like Mill's when he argued that the maxim "Every one to want for one, & none for more than one" was no more than saying that "the truths of arithmetic are applicable to happiness as they are to all other measurable quantities". [11] If happiness is a measurable quantity (which it isn't), then in estimating a total I must be neutral between A's and B's; 10 units of A's will swell the total by as much as 10 of B's. That neutrality is part of what his premises lead to. And he infers that therefore I ought not to try to swell the total by producing A's units more than by producing B's units.

I never read Mill till I came to Oxford. Then Alfred Robinson brought me up on his Logic, in Mods lectures: & first rate lectures they were. I think I swallowed it till I had to answer a question in the Schools, & found out something wouldn't work. But how incoherent both his Logic & his utilitarianism are I didn't realise till I came to lecture, on ethics, & on Mods Logic after Robinson's death. Not that Mill wasn't a big man.

When I started writing my paper, it was to get my dissent off my chest. I have been in two minds about publishing it. [12] It did disturb me that these heresies (as I should call them) should be propounded, & by you, & I felt moved to protest. But though I don't mind falling foul of what you say, I'd no wish to fall foul of you in print. Ãll' oô cÀr prà tùq Ãlgheéaq timgtÉoq Ãnòr, no doubt. [13] But I'd rather convince you than attack your paper publicly. Not that I expect to convince, if you have read my book on morals: [14] for I must have shot my bolt then, & missed. Now, if you care to see the paper, I'll send it you when term begins, & send it to "Mind" or not as you please. And after this pretentious letter you'll understand why I was glad you wrote. And I hope you won't think all this very arrogant.

Yours ever

H. W. B. Joseph

I think you are far too much under the obsession of means & end. We do many things for their own sake, & then there is in the proper sense no "end".

Do you ever see Andrews? [15] I asked the Press to send him a copy of my Essays, [16] to the address in the New Coll. list, & don't know if it reached him.

  1. 1. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ).

    2. A revised version of Joseph's reply was sent a few days later, attached to letter 548 R.

    3. See letters 122 , 123 and 129 R, exchanged between November 1926 and January 1927 concerning Harrod's essay on "Morals and Arithmetic" (here reproduced as essay 3 ; see in particular note 1 for context).

    4. On Harrod's disputes with Joseph as an undergraduate see note 2 to letter 8 R.

    5. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), p. 142.

    6. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), pp. 141-42.

    7. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), part II.

    8. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), p. 138.

    9. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), p. 156.

    10. See e.g. Harrod, "Utilitarianism Revised" ( 1936:5 ), p. 143.

    11. J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter V (in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, and London: Routledge, 1969, vol. 10, pp. 257-58n).

    12. The criticism was eventually not published: see letter 551 R.

    13. "We must not honor a man above truth": Plato, Republic, 595c (P. Shorey's translation, in Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, vols 5 and 6, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, and London: William Heinemann, 1969).

    14. H. W. B. Joseph, Some Problems in Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931.

    15. Probably Henry Maxwell Andrews, a contemporary of Harrod at New College.

    16. H. W. B. Joseph, Essays in Ancient and Modern Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935.

    1. a. ALS, 12 pages on six leaves, in HPBL Add. 72730/38-43.


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