Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter XI


§3. If we begin by considering the duty of acting wisely, discussed in chap. iii., we may seem perhaps to have before us an axiom of undoubted self-evidence. For acting wisely appeared to mean taking the right means to the best ends; i.e. taking the means which Reason indicates to the ends which Reason prescribes. And it is evident that it must be right to act reasonably. Equally undeniable is the immediate inference from, or negative aspect of, this principle; that it is wrong to act in opposition to rational judgment. This, taken in connexion with the empirical fact of impulses in our minds conflicting with Reason, gives---as another self-evident principle---the maxim of Temperance or Self-control in its widest interpretation; i.e. `That reason should never give way to Appetite or Passion'. And these principles have sometimes been enounced with no little solemnity as answering the fundamental question of Ethics and supplying the basis or summary of a doctrine of Practice.

But this statement of principles turns out to be one of those stages, so provokingly frequent in the course of ethical reflection, which, as far as practical guidance is concerned, are really brief circuits, leading us back to the point from which we started. Or rather, to prevent misapprehension, it should be observed that the maxims just given may be understood in two senses: in one sense they are certainly self-evident, but they are also insignificant: in another sense they include more or less distinctly a direction to an important practical duty, but as so understood they lose their self-evidence. For if the rules of Wisdom and Self-control mean (1) that we ought always to do what we see to be reasonable, and (2) that we are not to yield to any impulse urging us in an opposite direction; they simply affirm that it is our duty (1) generally, and (2) under special temptations, to do what we judge to be our duty:[2] and convey no information as to the method and principles by which duty is to be determined.

But if these rules are further understood (as they sometimes are understood) to prescribe the cultivation of a habit of acting rationally; that is, of referring each act to definitely conceived principles and ends, instead of allowing it to be determined by instinctive impulses; then I cannot see that the affirmation of this as an universal and absolute rule of duty is self-evidently true. For when Reason is considered not in the present as actually commanding, but as an End of which a fuller realisation has to be sought in the future; the point of view from which its sovereignty has to be judged is entirely changed. The question is no longer whether the dictates of Reason ought always to be obeyed, but whether the dictation of Reason is always a Good; whether any degree of predominance of Reason over mere Impulse must necessarily tend to the perfection of the conscious self of which both are elements. And it is surely not self-evident that this predominance cannot be carried too far; and that Reason is not rather self-limiting, in the knowledge that rational ends are sometimes better attained by those who do not directly aim at them as rational. Certainly Common Sense is inclined to hold that in many matters instinct is a better spring of action than reason: thus it is commonly said that a healthy appetite is a better guide to diet than a doctor's prescription: and, again, that marriage is better undertaken as a consequence of falling in love than in execution of a tranquil and deliberate design: and we before observed (chap. iv.) that there is a certain excellence in services springing from spontaneous affection which does not attach to similar acts done from pure sense of duty. And in the same way experience seems to show that many acts requiring promptitude and vigour are likely to be more energetic and effective, and that many acts requiring tact and delicacy are likely to be more graceful and pleasant to others, if they are done not in conscious obedience to the dictates of Reason but from other motives. It is not necessary here to decide how far this view is true: it suffices to say that we do not know intuitively that it is not true to some extent; we do not know that there may not be---to use Plato's analogy---over-government in the individual soul no less than in the state. The residuum, then, of clear intuition which we have so far obtained, is the insignificant proposition that it is our duty to do what we judge to be our duty.

[ME, Review of the Morality of Common Sense, §2]
[ME, Review of the Morality of Common Sense, §4]