Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IX


§1. We have hitherto spoken of the quality of conduct discerned by our moral faculty as `rightness', which is the term commonly used by English moralists. We have regarded this term, and its equivalents in ordinary use, as implying the existence of a dictate or imperative of reason, which prescribes certain actions either unconditionally, or with reference to some ulterior end.

It is, however, possible to take a view of virtuous action in which, though the validity of moral intuitions is not disputed, this notion of rule or dictate is at any rate only latent or implicit, the moral ideal being presented as attractive rather than imperative. Such a view seems to be taken when the action to which we are morally prompted, or the quality of character manifested in it, is judged to be `good' in itself (and not merely as a means to some ulterior Good). This, as was before noticed, was the fundamental ethical conception in the Greek schools of Moral Philosophy generally; including even the Stoics, though their system, from the prominence that it gives to the conception of Natural Law, forms a transitional link between ancient and modern ethics. And this historical illustration may serve to exhibit one important result of substituting the idea of `goodness' for that of `rightness' of conduct, which at first sight might be thought a merely verbal change. For the chief characteristics of ancient ethical controversy as distinguished from modern may be traced to the employment of a generic notion instead of a specific one in expressing the common moral judgments on actions. Virtue or Right action is commonly regarded as only a species of the Good: and so, on this view of the moral intuition, the first question that offers itself, when we endeavour to systematise conduct, is how to determine the relation of this species of good to the rest of the genus. It was on this question that the Greek thinkers argued, from first to last. Their speculations can scarcely be understood by us unless with a certain effort we throw the quasi-jural notions of modern ethics aside, and ask (as they did) not ``What is Duty and what is its ground?'' but ``Which of the objects that men think good is truly Good or the Highest Good?'' or, in the more specialised form of the question which the moral intuition introduces, ``What is the relation of the kind of Good we call Virtue, the qualities of conduct and character which men commend and admire, to other good things?''

This, then, is the first difference to be noticed between the two forms of the intuitive judgment. In the recognition of conduct as `right' is involved an authoritative prescription to do it: but when we have judged conduct to be good, it is not yet clear that we ought to prefer this kind of good to all other good things: some standard for estimating the relative values of different `goods' has still to be sought.

I propose, then, to examine the import of the notion 'Good' in the whole range of its application;---premising that, as it is for the constituents of Ultimate Good that we require a standard of comparison, we are not directly concerned with anything that is clearly only good as a means to the attainment of some ulterior end. If, indeed, we had only this latter case to consider, it would be plausible to interpret `good' without reference to human desire or choice, as meaning merely `fit' or `adapted' for the production of certain effects---a good horse for riding, a good gun for shooting, etc. But as we apply the notion also to ultimate ends we must seek a meaning for it which will cover both applications.

[ME, Intuitionism, §4]
[ME, Good, §2]