Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter VI


§1. The results of the three preceding chapters may be briefly stated as follows:---

The aim of Ethics is to systematise and free from error the apparent cognitions that most men have of the rightness or reasonableness of conduct, whether the conduct be considered as right in itself, or as the means to some end commonly conceived as ultimately reasonable. These cognitions are normally accompanied by emotions of various kinds, known as ``moral sentiments'': but an ethical judgment cannot be explained as affirming merely the existence of such a sentiment: indeed it is an essential characteristic of a moral feeling that it is bound up with an apparent cognition of something more than mere feeling. Such cognitions, again, I have called `dictates', or `imperatives'; because, in so far as they relate to conduct on which any one is deliberating, they are accompanied by a certain impulse to do the acts recognised as right, which is liable to conflict with other impulses. Provided this impulse is effective in producing right volition, it is not of primary importance for ethical purposes to determine the exact characteristics of the emotional states that precede such volitions. And this remains true even if the force actually operating on his will is mere desire for the pleasures that he foresees will attend right conduct, or aversion to the pains that will result from doing wrong: though we observe that in this case his action does not correspond to our common notion of strictly virtuous conduct; and though there seems to be no ground for regarding such desires and aversions as the sole, or even the normal, motives of human volitions. Nor, again, is it generally important to determine whether we are always, metaphysically speaking, `free' to do what we clearly see to be right. What I `ought' to do, in the strictest use of the word `ought', is always `in my power', in the sense that there is no obstacle to my doing it except absence of adequate motive; and it is ordinarily impossible for me, in deliberation, to regard such absence of motive as a reason for not doing what I otherwise judge to be reasonable.

What then do we commonly regard as valid ultimate reasons for acting or abstaining? This, as was said, is the starting-point for the discussions of the present treatise: which is not primarily concerned with proving or disproving the validity of any such reasons, but rather with the critical exposition of the different `methods'---or rational procedures for determining right conduct in any particular case-which are logically connected with the different ultimate reasons widely accepted. In the first chapter we found that such reasons were supplied by the notions of Happiness and Excellence or Perfection (including Virtue or Moral Perfection as a prominent element), regarded as ultimate ends, and Duty as prescribed by unconditional rules. This threefold difference in the conception of the ultimate reason for conduct corresponds to what seem the most fundamental distinctions that we apply to human existence; the distinction between the conscious being and the stream of conscious experience, and the distinction (within this latter) of Action and Feeling. For Perfection is put forward as the ideal goal of the development of a human being, considered as a permanent entity; while by Duty, we mean the kind of Action that we think ought to be done; and similarly by Happiness or Pleasure we mean an ultimately desired or desirable kind of Feeling. It may seem, however, that these notions by no means exhaust the list of reasons which are widely accepted as ultimate grounds of action. Many religious persons think that the highest reason for doing anything is that it is God's Will: while to others `Self-realisation' or `Self-development', and to others, again, `Life according to nature' appear the really ultimate ends. And it is not hard to understand why conceptions such as these are regarded as supplying deeper and more completely satisfying answers to the fundamental question of Ethics, than those before named: since they do not merely represent I what ought to be, as such; they represent it in an apparently simple relation to what actually is. God, Nature, Self, are the fundamental facts of existence; the knowledge of what will accomplish God's Will, what is, `according to Nature', what will realise the true Self in each of us, would seem to solve the deepest problems of Metaphysics as well as of Ethics. But just because these notions combine the ideal with the actual, their proper sphere belongs not to Ethics as I define it, but to Philosophy---the central and supreme study which is concerned with the relations of all objects of knowledge. The introduction of these notions into Ethics is liable to bring with it a fundamental confusion between ``what is'' and ``what ought to be'', destructive of all clearness in ethical reasoning: and if this confusion is avoided, the strictly ethical import of such notions, when made explicit, appears always to lead us to one or other of the methods previously distinguished.

There is least danger of confusion in the case of the theological conception of `God's Will'; since here the connexion between `what is' and `what ought to be' is perfectly clear and explicit. The content of God's Will we conceive as presently existing, in idea: its actualisation is the end to be aimed at. There is indeed a difficulty in understanding bow God's Will can fail to be realised, whether we do right or wrong: or how, if it cannot fail to be realised in either case, its realisation can give the ultimate motive for doing right. But this difficulty it belongs to Theology rather than Ethics to solve. The practical question is, assuming that God wills in a special sense what we ought to do, how we are to ascertain this in any particular case. This must be either by Revelation or by Reason, or by both combined. If an external Revelation is proposed as the standard, we are obviously carried beyond the range of our study; on the other hand, when we try to ascertain by reason the Divine Will, the conception seems to present itself as a common form under which a religious mind is disposed to xegard whatever method of determining conduct it apprehends to be rational; since we cannot know any act to be in accordance with the Divine Will, which we do not also, by the same exercise of thought, know to be dictated by reason. Thus, commonly, it is either assumed that God desires the Happiness of men, in which case our efforts should be concentrated on its production: or that He desires their Perfection, and that that should be our end: or that whatever His end may be (into which perhaps we have no right to inquire) His Laws are immediately cognisable, being in fact the first principles of Intuitional Morality. Or perhaps it is explained that God's Will is to be learnt by examining our own constitution or that of the world we are in: so that `Conformity to God's Will' seems to resolve itself into `Self-realisation', or `Life according to nature'. In any case, this conception, however important it may be in supplying new motives for doing what we believe to be right, does not---apart from Revelation---suggest any special criterion of rightness.

[ME, Free Will, §5]
[ME, Ethical Principles and Methods, §2]