In some parts of the field of truth, no doubt, men who work by these divergent ways are apt as men to represent antithetical types. But over the whole field this need not be so, for in some parts of it the main work of systematization is just to cut away obstructions from in- tuition. This is the case in ethics. Systematic work in that department is, as I conceive it, almost wholly negative; its business is just this, to break down those false systems which our irrational thirst for unity has set up and which, so long as they hold the field, blur and obscure insight. Positive con- struction in ethics is insight and little else. Here poet and philosopher meet; and that is why Nietzsche, musician and artist to the core as he is, is nevertheless a philosopher also.

Are there contemporary adherents to this view, either in ethics or Nietzsche studies? I guess I'm frustrated with ethics but still feel I know right from wrong: it could be an easy way out!

2 Answers 2


Great quote! I would haste to add clarification that "these divergent fields" are poetry and philosophy, specifically, and that the author is A. C. Pigou.

I don't think the quote makes any particularly novel statement and I suppose that most people would naturally agree once they considered what the author was doing. How can any person be held to an ethical requirement that we know is paradoxical? (negative work in ethics)

In my thinking, ethics is anchored pretty well by "the golden rule": "do to others what you would have them do to you." This, in turn, is a good idea because of (let's call it) "the golden premise": "others are as valuable as me, or maybe more valuable".

Is "the golden premise" available without intuition, i.e. through logic alone? I suspect not. So Pigou's assertion seems perfectly fine.

  • but is it available through insight alone, without logic? is it only available when we have given up on or negated all systematic reasoning about ethics?
    – confused
    Nov 14, 2018 at 19:02
  • @confused, my "golden premise", I suspect, is available prior to any action of logic. But that is not to say by any means that it disappears under the light of logic, like charm does in the Keats poem quoted by Pigou ( bartleby.com/126/37.html ). Nov 14, 2018 at 20:12
  • I would say that my "golden premise" fits well as that thing identified by Gödel's incompleteness theorem (which says that no system can ever be complete) as necessary for ethics in spite of being outside of ethics. Nov 14, 2018 at 20:13

The quote seems to be suggesting that the formalisation of ethics is all about identifying false (or logically flawed) systems by analysis. This seems correct.

Metaphysics, of which ethics is a part, is all about refuting theories to reveal those that survive analysis. Logic cannot prove truth but can be used to guard against error.

So he makes the point that analysis will dispose of incoherent theories, a negative process, while for a positive theory we would need intuition and insight.

'Contemporary adherents' of this view would seem to include just about everyone. It is well-understood that metaphysics does not produce a positive result. The situation is much the same in physics where we can falsify theories but never prove they are 'true'.

  • do you mean that just about everyone believes that moral knowledge cannot be expressed in a moral system? seems unlikely to me, but i'm not sure
    – confused
    Nov 14, 2018 at 13:25
  • @confused.- Oh no, I'm a big fan of systematic ethics and metaphysics.but logic cannot create an ethical system. It has to be an act of intuition and insight that extrapolates from logic. Such a system may be tested in logic but only once it has been created. Another way to say this is that logical results have to be interpreted, and this interpretation requires insight and imagination. Logic can only refute an ethical theory, never verify its truth.
    – user20253
    Nov 14, 2018 at 13:42
  • but surely interpretation can involve both insight / imagination AND building a positive system.
    – confused
    Nov 14, 2018 at 19:06
  • @confused - I'd say so, yes. But a 'system' requires logical consistency as a basic property. In reality we have to use logic. imagination and intuition all at the same time, as we do in physics for the interpretation of data and when forming hypotheses to test, but logic would rule as formal consistency is the most basic requirement for a 'reasonable' theory. Just my view, of course.
    – user20253
    Nov 15, 2018 at 12:42
  • @PeterJ The comparison to physics is interesting. Physicists create theories that are subject to falsification, and once they've been adequately pounded on use them. The purpose is to learn the truth as best we can. The original quote says that the construction of ethics is based on insight and little else, which would seem to translate into physics being based on intuition and little else. Dec 14, 2018 at 18:51

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