Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter I


§3. The term `formal rightness', as above used, implying a desire or choice of the act as right, implies also a belief that it is so. But the latter condition may exist without the former: I cannot perform an act from pure love of duty without believing it to be right: but I can believe it to be right and yet do it from some other motive. And there seems to be more agreement among moralists who adopt the Intuitional Method as to the moral indispensability of such a belief, than we have found with respect to the question of motive: at least, it would, I conceive, be universally held that no act can be absolutely right, whatever its external aspect and relations, which is believed by the agent to be wrong.[1] Such an act we may call ``subjectively'' wrong, even though ``objectively " right. It may still be asked whether it is better in any particular case that a man should do what he mistakenly believes to be his duty, or what really is his duty in the particular circumstances---considered apart from his mistaken belief---and would be completely right if he could only think so. The question is rather subtle and perplexing to Common Sense: it is therefore worth while to point out that it can have only a limited and subordinate practical application. For no one, in considering what he ought himself to do in any particular case, can distinguish what he believes to be right from what really is so: the necessity for a practical choice between `subjective' and `objective' rightness can only present itself in respect of the conduct of another person whom it is in our power to influence. If another is about to do what we think wrong while he thinks it right, and we cannot alter his belief but can bring other motives to bear on him that may overbalance his sense of duty, it becomes necessary to decide whether we ought thus to tempt him to realise what we believe to be objectively right against his own convictions. I think that the moral sense of mankind would pronounce against such temptation,---thus regarding the Subjective rightness of an action as more important than the Objective,---unless the evil of the act prompted by a mistaken sense of duty appeared to be very grave. But however essential it may be that a moral agent should do what he believes to be right, this condition of right conduct is too simple to admit of systematic development: it is, therefore, clear that the details of our investigation must relate mainly to `objective' rightness.

There is, however, one practical rule of some value, to be obtained by merely reflecting on the general notion of rightness[3], as commonly conceived. In a previous chapter I endeavoured to make this notion clearer by saying that `what I judge to be right must, unless I am in error, be judged to be so by all rational beings who judge truly of the matter'. This statement does not imply that what is judged to be right for one man must necessarily be judged so for another: `objective' rightness may vary from A to B no less than the `objective' facts of their nature and circumstances vary. There seems, however, to be this difference between our conceptions of ethical and physical objectivity respectively: that we commonly refuse to admit in the case of the former---what experience compels us to admit as regards the latter---variations for which we can discover no rational explanation. In the variety of coexistent physical facts we find an accidental or arbitrary element in which we have to acquiesce, as we cannot conceive it to be excluded by any extension of our knowledge of physical causation. If we ask, for example, why any portion of space empirically known to us contains more matter than any similar adjacent portion, physical science can only answer by stating (along with certain laws of change) some antecedent position of the parts of matter which needs explanation no less than the present; and however far back we carry our ascertainment of such antecedent positions, the one with which we leave off seems as arbitrary as that with which we started. But within the range of our cognitions of right and wrong, it will be generally agreed that we cannot admit a similar unexplained variation. We cannot judge an action to be right for A and wrong for B, unless we can find in the natures or circumstances of the two some difference which we can regard as a reasonable ground for difference in their duties. If therefore I judge any action to be right for myself, I implicitly judge it to be right for any other person whose nature and circumstances do not differ from my own in some important respects. Now by making this latter judgment explicit, we may protect ourselves against the danger which besets the conscience, of being warped and perverted by strong desire, so that we too easily think that we ought to do what we very much wish to do. For if we ask ourselves whether we believe that any similar person in similar circumstances ought to perform the contemplated action, the question will often disperse the false appearance of rightness which our strong inclination has given to it. We see that we should not think it right for another, and therefore that it cannot be right for us. Indeed this test of the rightness of our volitions is so generally effective, that Kant seems to have held that all particular rules of duty can be deduced from the one fundamental rule ``Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a universal law of nature.''[4] But this appears to me an error analogous to that of supposing that Formal Logic supplies a complete criterion of truth. I should agree that a volition which does not stand this test is to be condemned; but I hold that a volition which does stand it may after all be wrong. For I conceive that all (or almost all) persons who act conscientiously could sincerely will the maxims on which they act to be universally adopted: while at the same time we continually find such persons in thoroughly conscientious disagreement as to what each ought to do in a given set of circumstances. Under these circumstances, to say that all such persons act rightly---in the objective sense---because their maxims all conform to Kant's fundamental rule, would obliterate altogether the distinction between subjective and objective rightness; it would amount to affirming that whatever any one thinks right is so, unless he is in error as to the facts of the case to which his judgment applies. But such an affirmation is in flagrant conflict with common sense; and would render the construction of a scientific code of morality futile: as the very object of such a code is to supply a standard for rectifying men's divergent opinions.

We may conclude then that the moral judgments which the present method attempts to systematise are primarily and for the most part intuitions of the rightness or goodness (or the reverse) of particular kinds of external effects of human volition, presumed to be intended by the agent, but considered independently of the agent's own view as to the rightness or wrongness of his intention; though the quality of motives, as distinct from intentions, has also to be taken into account.

[ME, Intuitionism, §2]
[ME, Intuitionism, §4]