Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter III


§2. So far, then, from being prepared to admit that the proposition `X ought to be done' merely expresses the existence of a certain sentiment in myself or others, I find it strictly impossible so to regard my own moral judgments without eliminating from the concomitant sentiment the peculiar quality signified by the term `moral'. There is, however, another interpretation of `ought', in which the likings and aversions that men in general feel for certain kinds of conduct are considered not as sympathetically represented in the emotion of the person judging, and thus constituting the moral element in it, but as causes of pain to the person of whom `ought' or `duty' is predicated. On this view, when we say that a man `ought' to do anything, or that it is his `duty' to do it, we mean that he is bound under penalties to do it; the particular penalty considered being the pain that will accrue to him directly or indirectly from the dislike of his fellow-creatures.

I think that this interpretation expresses a part of the meaning with which the words `ought' and `duty' are used in ordinary thought and discourse. For we commonly use the term `moral obligation' as equivalent to `duty' and expressing what is implied in the verb `ought', thus suggesting an analogy between this notion and that of legal obligation; and in the case of positive law we cannot refuse to recognise the connexion of `obligation' and `punishment': a law cannot be properly said to be actually established in a society if it is habitually violated with impunity. But a more careful reflection on the relation of Law to Morality, as ordinarily conceived, seems to show that this interpretation of `ought'---though it cannot be excluded---must be distinguished from the special ethical use of the term. For the ideal distinction taken in common thought between legal and merely moral rules seems to lie in just this connexion of the former but not the latter with punishment: we think that there are some things which a man ought to be compelled to do, or forbear, and others which be ought to do or forbear without compulsion, and that the former alone fall properly within the sphere of law. No doubt we also think that in many cases where the compulsion of law is undesirable, the fear of moral censure and its consequences supplies a normally useful constraint on the will of any individual. But it is evident that what we mean when we say that a man is ``morally though not legally bound'' to do a thing is not merely that he ``will be punished by public opinion if be does not''; for we often join these two statements, clearly distinguishing their import: and further (since public opinion is known to be eminently fallible) there are many things which we judge men `ought' to do, while perfectly aware that they will incur no serious social penalties for omitting them. In such cases, indeed, it would be commonly said that social disapprobation `ought' to follow on immoral conduct; and this very assertion it is clear that the term `ought' cannot mean that social penalties are to be feared by those who do not disapprove. Again, all or most men in whom the moral consciousness is strongly developed find themselves from time to time in conflict with the commonly received morality of the society to which they belong: and thus---as was before said---have a crucial experience proving that duty does not mean to them what other men will disapprove of them for not doing.

At the same time I admit, as indeed I have already suggested in §3 of chap. i., that we not unfrequently pass judgments resembling moral judgments in form, and not distinguished from them in ordinary thought, in cases where the obligation affirmed is found, on reflection, to depend on the existence of current opinions and sentiments as such. The members of modern civilised societies are under the sway of a code of Public Opinion, enforced by social penalties, which no reflective person obeying it identifies with the moral code, or regards as unconditionally binding: indeed the code is manifestly fluctuating and variable, different at the same time in different classes, professions, social circles, of the same political community. Such a code always supports to a considerable extent the commonly received code of morality: and most reflective persons think it generally reasonable to conform to the dictates of public opinion---to the code of Honour, we may say, in graver matters, or the rules of Politeness or Good Breeding in lighter matters---wherever these dictates do not positively conflict with morality; such conformity being maintained either on grounds of private interest, or because it is thought conducive to general happiness or wellbeing to keep as much as possible in harmony with one's fellow-men. Hence in the ordinary thought of unreflective persons the duties imposed by social opinion are often undistinguished from moral duties: and indeed this indistinctness is almost inherent in the common meaning of many terms. For instance, if we say that a man has been `dishonoured' by a cowardly act, it is not quite clear whether we mean that he has incurred contempt, or that he has deserved it, or both: as becomes evident when we take a case in which the Code of Honour comes into conflict with Morality. If (e.g.) a man were to incur social ostracism anywhere for refusing a duel on religious grounds, some would say that he was `dishonoured', though he had acted rightly, others that there could be no real dishonour in a virtuous act. A similar arabiguity seems to lurk in the common notion of `improper' or `incorrect' behaviour. Still in all such cases the ambiguity becomes evident on reflection: and when discovered, merely serves to illustrate further the distinction between the notion of `right conduct', `duty', what we `ought' or are under `moral obligation' to do---when these terms are used in a strictly ethical sense---and conduct that is merely conformed to the standard of current opinion.

There is, however, another way of interpreting `ought' as connoting penalties, which is somewhat less easy to meet by a crucial psychological experiment. The moral imperative may be taken to be a law of God, to the breach of which Divine penalties are annexed; and these, no doubt, in a Christian society, are commonly conceived to be adequate and universally applicable. Still, it can hardly be said that this belief is shared by all the persons whose conduct is influenced by independent moral convictions, occasionally unsupported either by the law or the public opinion of their community. And even in the case of many of those who believe fully in the moral government of the world, the judgment ``I ought to do this'' cannot be identified with the judgment ``God will punish me if I do not''; since the conviction that the former proposition is true is distinctly recognised as an important part of the grounds for believing the latter. Again, when Christians speak---as they commonly do---of the `justice' (or other moral attributes) of God, as exhibited in punishing sinners and rewarding the righteous, they obviously imply not merely that God will thus punish and reward, but that it is `right' for Him to do so: which, of course, cannot be taken to mean that He is `bound under penalties'.

[ME, Ethical Judgments, §1]
[ME, Ethical Judgments, §3]