Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter XII


§2. In the first place, it has to be decided whether we are to include in our list of motives the Moral Sentiments, or impulses towards particular kinds of virtuous conduct as such, e.g. Candour, Veracity, Fortitude. It seems unwarrantable to exclude them, as such sentiments are observable as distinct and independent impulses in most well-trained minds, and we sometimes recognise their existence in considerable intensity, as when we speak of a man being `enthusiastically brave', or `intensely veracious', or as `having a passion for justice'. At the same time their admission places us in the following dilemma. Either the objects of these impulses are represented by the very notions that we have been examining---in which case, after we have decided that any impulse is better than its rival, all the perplexities set forth in the previous chapters will recur, before we can act on our decision; for what avails it to recognise the superiority of the impulse to do justice, if we do not know what it is just to do?---or if in any case the object which a moral sentiment prompts us to realise is conceived more simply, without the qualifications which a complete reflection on Common Sense forced us to recognise; then, as the previous investigation shows, we shall certainly not find agreement as to the relation between this and other impulses. For example, a dispute, whether the impulse to speak the truth ought or ought not to be followed, will inevitably arise when Veracity seems opposed either to the general good, or to the interests of some particular person; that is, when it conflicts with `particular' or `universal' benevolence. Hutcheson expressly places these latter impulses in a higher rank than ``candour, veracity, fortitude''; reserving the highest moral approbation for ``the most extensive benevolence'' or ``calm, stable, universal goodwill to all''.[1] But this view, which coincides practically with Utilitarianism, would certainly be disputed by most Intuitional moralists. Again, some of these moralists (as Kant) regard all actions as bad---or not good---which are not done from pure regard for duty or choice of Right as Right: while Hutcheson, who represents the opposite pole of Intuitional Ethics, equally distinguishes the love of Virtue as a separate impulse; but treats it as at once co-ordinate in rank and coincident in its effects with universal Benevolence.

So, again, moralists diverge widely in estimating the ethical value of Self-love. For Butler seems to regard it as one of two superior and naturally authoritative impulses, the other being Conscience: nay, in a passage before quoted, he even concedes that it would be reasonable for Conscience to yield to it, if the two could possibly conflict. Other moralists (and Butler elsewhere) appear to place Self-love among virtuous impulses under the name of Prudence: though among these they often rank it rather low, and would have it yield in case of conflict, to nobler virtues. Others, again, exclude it from Virtue altogether: e.g. Kant, in one of his treatises, says that the end of Self-love, one's own happiness, cannot be an end for the Moral Reason; that the force of the reasonable will, in which Virtue consists, is always exhibited in resistance to natural egoistic impulses.

Dr. Martineau, whose system is framed on the basis that I am now examining, attempts to avoid some of the difficulties just pointed out by refusing to admit the existence of any virtuous impulses except the ``preference for the superior of the competing springs of action in each case'' of a conflict of motives. ``I cannot admit'', he says, ``either the loves of Virtues---of candour, veracity, fortitude---or the virtues themselves, as so many additional impulses over and above those from the conflict of which they are formed. I do not confess my fault in order to be candid … unless I am a prig, I never think of candour, as predicable, or going to be predicable, of me at all.'' [4] I am not, however, sure whether Dr. Martineau really means to deny the existence of persons who act from a conscious desire to realise an ideal of Candour or Fortitude, or whether he merely means to express disapproval of such persons: in the former sense his statement seems to me a psychological paradox, in conflict with ordinary experience: in the latter sense it seems an ethical paradox, affording a striking example of that diversity of judgments as to the rank of motives, to which I am now drawing attention.

[ME, Motives or Springs of Action Considered as Subjects of Moral Judgment, §1]
[ME, Motives or Springs of Action Considered as Subjects of Moral Judgment, §3]