Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter VI


§2. Now, in so far as Utilitarian morality coincides with that of Common Sense---as we have seen that it does in the main---this investigation has been partly performed in chap. v. of Book ii. It there appeared that while in any tolerable state of society the performance of duties towards others and the exercise of social virtues seem generally likely to coincide with the attainment of the greatest possible happiness in the long run for the virtuous agent, still the universality and completeness of this coincidence are at least incapable of empirical proof: and that, indeed, the more carefully we analyse and estimate the different sanctions---Legal, Social, and Conscientious---considered as operating under the actual conditions of human life, the more difficult it seems to believe that they can be always adequate to produce this coincidence. The natural effect of this argument upon a convinced Utilitarian is merely to make him anxious to alter the actual conditions of human life: and it would certainly be a most valuable contribution to the actual happiness of mankind, if we could so improve the adjustment of the machine of Law in any society, and so stimulate and direct the common awards of praise and blame, and so develop and train the moral sense of the members of the community, as to render it clearly prudent for every individual to promote as much as possible the general good. However, we are not now considering what a consistent Utilitarian will try to effect for the future, but what a consistent Egoist is to do in the present. And it must be admitted that, as things are, whatever difference exists between Utilitarian morality and that of Common Sense is of such a kind as to render the coincidence with Egoism still more improbable in the case of the former. For we have seen that Utilitarianism is more rigid than Common Sense in exacting the sacrifice of the agent's private interests where they are incompatible with the greatest happiness of the greatest number: and of course in so far as the Utilitarian's principles bring him into conflict with any of the commonly accepted rules of morality, the whole force of the Social Sanction operates to deter him from what he conceives to be his duty.

[ME, The Mutual Relations of the Three Methods, §1]
[ME, The Mutual Relations of the Three Methods, §3]