Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IX


§3. What then can we state as the general meaning of the term 'good'? Shall we say---with Hobbes, and many since Hobbes---that `whatsoever is the object of any man's Desire, that it is which he for his part calleth Good, and the object of his aversion, Evil'? To simplify the discussion, we will consider only what a man desires for itself---not as a means to an ulterior result,---and for himself---not benevolently for others: his own Good and ultimate Good. We have first to meet the obvious objection that a man often desires what he knows is on the whole bad for him: the pleasure of drinking champagne which is sure to disagree with him, the gratification of revenge when he knows that his true interest lies in reconciliation. The answer is that in such cases the desired result is accompanied or followed by other effects which when they come excite aversion stronger than the desire for the desired effect: but that these bad effects, though fore-seen are not fore-felt: the representation of them does not adequately modify the predominant direction of desire as a present fact. But, granting this, and fixing attention solely on the result desired, apart from its concomitants and consequences---it would still seem that what is desired at any time is, as such, merely apparent Good, which may not be found good when fruition comes, or at any rate not so good as it appeared. It may turn out a 'Dead Sea apple', mere dust and ashes in the eating: more often, fruition will partly correspond to expectation, but may still fall short of it in a marked degree. And sometimes---even while yielding to the desire---we are aware of the illusoriness of this expectation of `good' which the desire carries with it. I conclude, therefore, that if we are to conceive of the elements of ultimate Good as capable of quantitative comparison---as we do when we speak of preferring a 'greater' good to a 'lesser',---we cannot identify the object of desire with ' good' simply, or `true good', but only with ' apparent good'.

But further: a prudent man is accustomed to suppress, with more or less success, desires for what he regards as out of his power to attain by voluntary action---as fine weather, perfect health, great wealth or fame, etc.; but any success he may have in diminishing the actual intensity of such desires has no effect in leading him to judge the objects desired less `good'.

It would seem then, that if we interpret the notion `good' in relation to `desire', we must identify it not with the actually desired, but rather with the desirable:---meaning by `desirable' not necessarily `what ought to be desired' but what would be desired, with strength proportioned to the degree of desirability, if it were judged attainable by voluntary action, supposing the desirer to possess a perfect forecast, emotional as well as intellectual, of the state of attainment or fruition.

It still remains possible that the choice of any particular good, thus defined as an object of pursuit, may be on the whole n bad, on account of its concomitants and consequences; even though the particular result when attained is not found other than it was imagined in the condition of previous desire. If, therefore, in seeking a definition of `ultimate Good' we mean `good on the whole', we have---following the line of thought of the preceding paragraph---to express its relation to Desire differently. In the first place we have to limit our view to desire which becomes practical in volition; as I may still regard as desirable results which I judge it on the whole imprudent to aim at. But, even with this limitation, the relation of my `good on the whole' to my desire is very complicated. For it is not even sufficient to say that my Good on the whole is what I should actually desire and seek if all the consequences of seeking it could be foreknown and adequately realised by me in imagination at the time of making my choice. No doubt an equal regard for all the moments of our conscious experience---so far, at least, as the mere difference of their position in time is concerned---is an essential characteristic of rational conduct. But the mere fact, that a man does not afterwards feel for the consequences of an action aversion strong enough to cause him to regret it, cannot be accepted as a complete proof that be has acted for his `good on the whole'. Indeed, we commonly reckon it among the worst consequences of some kinds of conduct that they alter men's tendencies to desire, and make them desire their lesser good more than their greater: and we think it all the worse for a man---even in this world---if he is never roused out of such a condition and lives till death the life of a contented pig, when he might have been something better. To avoid this objection, it would have to be said that a man's future good on the whole is what he would now desire and seek on the whole if all the consequences of all the different lines of conduct open to him were accurately foreseen and adequately realised in imagination at the present point of time.

This hypothetical composition of impulsive forces involves so elaborate and complex a conception, that it is somewhat paradoxical to say that this is what we commonly mean when we talk of a man's `good on the whole'. Still, I cannot deny that this hypothetical object of a resultant desire supplies an intelligible and admissible interpretation of the terms `good' (substantive) and `desirable', as giving philosophical precision to the vaguer meaning with which they are used in ordinary discourse: and it would seem that a calm comprehensive desire for `good' conceived somewhat in this way, though more vaguely, is normally produced by intellectual comparison and experience in a reflective mind. The notion of `Good' thus attained has an ideal element: it is something that is not always actually desired and aimed at by human beings: but the ideal element is entirely interpretable in terms of fact, actual or hypothetical, and does not introduce any judgment of value, fundamentally distinct from judgments relating to existence;---still less any `dictate of Reason'. [2]

It seems to me, however, more in accordance with common sense to recognise---as Butler does---that the calm desire for my `good on the whole' is authoritative; and therefore carries with it implicitly a rational dictate to aim at this end, if in any case a conflicting desire urges the will in an opposite direction. Still we may keep the notion of `dictate' or `imperative' merely implicit and latent,---as it seems to be in ordinary judgments as to `my good' and its opposite---by interpreting `ultimate good on the whole for me' to mean what I should practically desire if my desires were in harmony with reason, assuming my own existence alone to be considered. On this view, ``ultimate good on the whole'', unqualified by reference to a particular subject, must be taken to mean what as a rational being I should desire and seek to realise, assuming myself to have an equal concern for all existence. When conduct is judged to be `good' or `desirable' in itself, independently of its consequences, it is, I conceive, this latter point of view that is taken. Such a judgment differs, as I have said, from the judgment that conduct is `right', in so far as it does not involve a definite precept to perform it; since it still leaves it an open question whether this particular kind of good is the greatest good that we can under the circumstances obtain. It differs further, as we may now observe, in so far as good or excellent actions are not implied to be in our power in the same strict sense as `right' actions---any more than any other good things: and in fact there are many excellences of behaviour which we cannot attain by any effort of will, at least directly and at the moment: hence we often feel that the recognition of goodness in the conduct of others does not carry with it a clear precept to do likewise, but rather

the vague desire
That stirs an imitative will.

In so far as this is the case Goodness of Conduct becomes an ulterior end, the attainment of which lies outside and beyond the range of immediate volition.

[ME, Good, §2]
[ME, Good, §4]