Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter III


§5. The duty of Truth-speaking is sometimes taken as a striking instance of a moral rule not resting on a Utilitarian basis. But a careful study of the qualifications with which the common opinion of mankind actually inculcates this duty seems to lead us to an opposite result: for not only is the general utility of truth-speaking so manifest as to need no proof, but wherever this utility seems to be absent, or outweighed by particular bad consequences, we find that Common Sense at least hesitates to enforce the rule. For example, if a man be pursuing criminal ends, it is prima facie injurious to the community that he should be aided in his pursuit by being able to rely on the assertions of others. Here, then, deception is prima facie legitimate as a protection against crime: though when we consider the bad effects on habit, and through example, of even a single act of unveracity, the case is seen to be, on Utilitarian principles, doubtful: and this is just the view of Common Sense. Again, though it is generally a man's interest to know the truth, there are exceptional cases in which it is injurious to him---as when an invalid hears bad news---and here, too, Common Sense is disposed to suspend the rule. Again, we found it difficult to define exactly wherein Veracity consists; for we may either require truth in the spoken words, or in the inferences which the speaker foresees will be drawn from them, or in both. Perfect Candour, no doubt, would require it in both: but in the various circumstances where this seems inexpedient, we often find Common Sense at least half-willing to dispense with one or other part of the double obligation. Thus we found a respectable school of thinkers maintaining that a religious truth may properly be communicated by means of a historical fiction: and, on the other hand, the unsuitability of perfect frankness to our existing social relations is recognised in the common rules of politeness, which impose on us not unfrequently the necessity of suppressing truths and suggesting falsehoods. I would not say that in any of these cases Common Sense pronounces quite decidedly in favour of unveracity: but then neither is Utilitarianism decided, as the utility of maintaining a general habit of truth-speaking is so great, that it is not easy to prove it to be clearly outweighed by even strong special reasons for violating the rule.

Yet it may be worth while to point out how the different views as to the legitimacy of Malevolent impulses, out of which we found it hard to frame a consistent doctrine for Common Sense, exactly correspond to different forecasts of the consequences of gratifying such impulses. Prima facie, the desire to injure any one in particular is inconsistent with a deliberate purpose of benefiting as much as possible people in general; accordingly, we find that what I may call Superficial Common Sense passes a sweeping condemnation on such desires. But a study of the actual facts of society shows that resentment plays an important part in that repression of injuries which is necessary to social wellbeing; accordingly, the reflective moralist shrinks from excluding it altogether. It is evident, however, that personal ill-will is a very dangerous means to the general happiness: for its direct end is the exact opposite of happiness; and though the realisation of this end may in certain cases be the least of two evils, still the impulse if encouraged is likely to prompt to the infliction of pain beyond the limits of just punishment, and to have an injurious reaction on the character of the angry person. Accordingly, the moralist is disposed to prescribe that indignation be directed always against acts, and not against persons; and if indignation so restricted would be efficient in repressing injuries, this would seem to be the state of mind most conducive to the general happiness. But it is doubtful whether average human nature is capable of maintaining this distinction, and whether, if it could be maintained, the more refined aversion would by itself be sufficiently efficacious: accordingly, Common Sense hesitates to condemn personal ill-will against wrong-doers---even if it includes a desire of malevolent satisfaction.

Finally, it is easy to show that Temperance, Self-control, and what are called the Self-regarding virtues generally, are `useful' to the individual who possesses them: and if it is not quite clear, in the view of Common Sense, to what end that regulation and government of appetites and passions, which moralists have so much inculcated and admired, is to be directed; at least there seems no obstacle in the way of our defining this end as Happiness. And even in the ascetic extreme of Self-control, which has sometimes led to the repudiation of sensual pleasures as radically bad, we may trace an unconscious Utilitarianism. For the ascetic condemnation has always been chiefly directed against those pleasures, in respect of which men are especially liable to commit excesses dangerous to health; and free indulgence in which, even when it keeps clear of injury to health, is thought to interfere with the development of other faculties and susceptibilities which are important sources of happiness.

[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §4]
[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §6]