Practical Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Essay 1

The Scope and Limits of the Work of an Ethical Society.

An address delivered at the preliminary meeting of the Cambridge Ethical Society, Friday, May 18th, 1888

I have to ask you to regard this as a preliminary meeting of the newly-formed Ethical Society, which will commence its ordinary meetings in the Michaelmas Term. This preliminary meeting is held with the view of arriving by frank discussion at a more full and clear notion of the aims and methods of such a society than could conveniently be given in the printed definition of its objects that has been circulated.

In order to set an example of frankness, I will begin by saying that I am not myself at all sanguine as to the permanent success of such a society in realizing what I understand to be the design of its founders, i.e., to promote through discussion the interests of practical morality. I think that failure in such an undertaking is more probable than success: but, lest this prognostication should be too depressing, I hasten to add that while permanent success in realizing what we aim at would be a result as valuable as it would be remarkable, failure, would be a very small evil; indeed, it would not necessarily be an evil at all. Even supposing that we become convinced in the course of two or three years that we are not going to attain the end that we have in view by the method which we now propose to use, we might still feel---I have good hope that we shall feel---that our discussions, so far as they will have gone, will have been interesting and, in their way, profitable though recognizing that the time has come for the Ethical Society to cease, we may, still feel glad that it has existed, and that we have belonged to it.

This cheerfully pessimistic view---if I may so describe it---is partly founded on an experience which I will briefly narrate.

Many years ago I became a member of a Metaphysical Society in London; that was its name, although it dealt with ethical questions no less than those called metaphysical in a narrow sense. It included many recognized representatives of different schools of thought, who met animated, I am sure, by a sincere desire to pursue truth by the method of discussion; and sought by frank explanation of their positions and frank statement of mutual objections, to come, if possible, to some residuum of agreement on the great questions that concern rational being---the meaning of human life, the relation of the individual to the universe, of the finite to the infinite, the ultimate ground of essence of virtue. Well, for a little while the Society seemed to flourish amazingly; it was joined by men eminent in various departments of practical life---statesmen, lawyers, journalists, bishops and archbishops of the Anglican and of the Roman persuasion: and the discussions went on, monthly or thereabouts, among the members of this heterogeneous group, without any friction or awkwardness, in the most frank and amicable way. The social result was all that could be desired; but in a few years' time it became, I think, clear to all of us that the intellectual end which the Society had proposed to itself was not likely to be attained; that, speaking broadly, we all remained exactly where we were,

``Affirming each his own philosophy'',

and no one being in the least convinced by any one else's arguments. And some of us felt that if the discussions went on, the reiterated statement of divergent opinions, the reiterated ineffective appeals to a common reason which we all assumed to exist, but which nowhere seemed to emerge into actuality, might become wearisome and wasteful of time. Thus the Metaphysical Society came to an end; but we were glad---at least, I certainly was glad---that we had belonged to it. We had not been convinced by each other, but we had learnt to understand each other better, and to sympathize, in a certain sense, with opposing lines of thought, even though we were unable to follow them with assent.

I have not, however, brought in this comparison merely to show why I am not afraid of failure; I have brought it in partly to introduce one counsel that I shall give to the Ethical Society with the view of escaping failure, viz., that it should be as much as possible unlike in its aims to the Metaphysical Society to which I have referred. I think we should give up altogether the idea of getting to the bottom of things, arriving at agreement on the first principles of duty or the Summum Bonum. if our discussions persist in taking that line, I can hardly doubt that we shall imitate the example of failure that I have just set before you; we shall not convince each other, and after a little while each of us, like the Irish juryman, will get tired of arguing with so many other obstinately unreasonable persons. In the Metaphysical Society we could not avoid this; a metaphysician who does not try to get to the bottom of things is, as Kant would say, an ``Unding'': he has no raison d'etre. But with our Ethical Society the case is different; the aim of such an Ethical Society, in the Aristotelian phrase, is not knowledge but action: and with this practical object it is not equally necessary that we should get to the bottom of things. It would be presumptuous to suppose that in such a Society as this, including, as we hope, many members whose intellectual habits as well as their aims are practical rather than speculative, we can settle the old controversies of the schools on ethical first principles; but it may be possible by steering clear of these controversies to reach some results of value for practical guidance and life. But how exactly are we to do this?

The question may be put in a more general form, in which it has a wider and more permanent interest than we can presume to claim for the special purpose for which we are met here to-night. What, we may ask, are the proper lines and limits of ethical discussion, having a distinctly practical aim, and carried on among a miscellaneous group of educated persons, who do not belong exclusively to any one religious sect or philosophical school, and possibly may not have gone through any systematic study of philosophy? The answer that I am about to give to this question must not be taken as in any way official, nor do I intend it to be in any way cut and dried. I should like to be free to adopt a materially different view as the result of further experience and interchange of opinions. But at present the matter presents itself to me in this light. Moralists of all schools have acknowledged---and usually emphasized, each from his own point of view---that broad agreement in the details of morality which we actually find both among thoughtful persons who profoundly disagree on first principles, and among plain men who do not seriously trouble themselves about first principles. Well, my view is that we ought to start with this broad agreement as to the dictates of duty, and keeping close to it, without trying to penetrate to the ultimate grounds, the first principles on which duty may be constructed as a rational system, to make this general agreement somewhat more explicit and clear an it is in ordinary thought. I want to advance one or two degrees in the direction of systematizing morality without hoping or attempting to go the whole way; and in the clearer apprehension of our common morality thus gained to eliminate or reduce the elements of confusion, of practical doubt and disagreement, which, at the present day at least, are liable to perplex even the plainest of plain men. I sometimes wonder whether the great Bishop Butler, who lays so much emphasis on the clearness and certainty of the dictates of a plain man's conscience,---I wonder whether this generally cautious thinker would use quite the same language if he lived now. It certainly seems to me that the practical perplexities of the plain man have materially increased in the century and a half that have elapsed since the famous sermons to which I refer were preached. Take, e.g., the case of compassion. The plain man of Butler's time knew that when he heard the cry of distress he ought to put his hand in his pocket and relieve it; but now he has learnt from newspapers and magazines that indiscriminate almsgiving aggravates in the long run the evils that it attempts to cure; and, therefore now, when he hears the cry of woe, it is apt to stir in his mind a disagreeable doubt and conflict, instead of the old simple impulse. Well, there is a solution to this perplexity, on which thinkers of the most different schools and sects would probably agree: that true charity demands of us money, but also some thing more than money: personal service, sacrifice of time and thought, and---after all---a patient endurance of a partially unsatisfactory result, acquiescence in minimizing evils that we cannot cure.

But this answer, though it does not raise any of the fundamental questions disputed in the schools, is yet not altogether trite and obvious; to give it in a fully satisfactory form needs careful thinking over, careful development and explanation. Thus this case may serve to illustrate my view of the general function of ethical debate, carried on by such a society as ours: to bring into a more clear and consistent form the broad and general agreement as to the particulars of morality which we find among moral persons, making explicit the general conceptions of the good and evil in human life, of the normal relation of a man to his fellows, which this agreement implies. We should do this not vaguely, but aiming cautiously at as much precision as the subject admits, not avoiding difficulties, but facing them, so as to get beyond the platitudes of copybook morality to results which may be really of use in the solution of practical questions; and yet not endeavouring to penetrate to ultimate principles, on which---as I have said---we can hardly hope to come to rational agreement in the present state of philosophical thought. We must remain as far as possible in the ``region of middle axioms''---if I may be allowed the technical term.

But how shall we mark off this region of discussion, in which we look for middle axioms, from the region in which first principles are sought? Well, I shall not try to do this with any definiteness, for if I did I should inevitably pass over into the region that I am trying to avoid; I should illustrate the old Greek argument to prove the necessity of philosophizing. ``We must philosophize, for either we ought to philosophize, or, if we ought not, we must philosophize in order to demonstrate that we ought not to philosophize.'' So if I tried to make definite our general conception of the kind of topic we ought to avoid, we should be insensibly drawn into a full discussion of these topics. I shall, therefore, leave the line vague, and content myself with describing some of the questions that lie beyond it.

To begin, there is all the discussion as to the nature, origin and development of moral ideas and sentiments, which---in recent times especially---has absorbed so large a part of the attention of moralists; when we want them to tell us what morality is, they are apt to slide off into entertaining but irrelevant speculations as to how, in pre-historic times, or in the obscurity of the infant's consciousness, it came to be. I think that, for our present purposes, we must keep clear of all this; we must say, with the German poet, ``Wir, wir leben … und der lebende hat Recht.'' We must make as workable a system as we can of our own morality, taking it as we find it, with an inevitable element of imperfection and error which I hope posterity will correct and supplement, just as we have corrected and supplemented certain errors and deficiencies in the morality of preceding ages.

So again, I hope we shall not waste words on the question of the freedom of the will, so prominent in the writings of some moralists. I do not think that ought to be included among the problems of practical ethics. Whether, and in what sense, we could have realized in the past, or can realize in the future the ideal of rational conduct which we have not realized, is not needed to be known for our present purposes. All we need to assume---and I suppose we may assume this of persons joining an Ethical Society---is that they have a desire of a certain force to realize their common moral ideal, and that they think it will help them to get their conception of it clearer.

And this leads me to another topic, more difficult to excise, but which yet I should like, to omit. When we try to get the conception of rational conduct clear we come upon the ``double nature of Good'', which, as Bacon tells us, is ``formed in everything'': we are met with the profound difficulty of harmonizing the good of the individual with the good of the larger whole of which he is a part or member. In my professional treatment of ethics I have concerned myself much with this question,---considering it to be the gravest formal defect of the Utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham, under whose influence my own view was formed, that it treats this problem so inadequately. But I do not want to introduce it into the discussions of our Society; I should prefer to assume---what I think we are all prepared to assume---that each of us wants to do what is best for the larger whole of which he is a part, and that it is not our business to supply him with egoistic reasons for doing it. In saying his, I do not dispute his claim to be supplied with such reasons by any moralist professing to construct a complete ethical system. When J. S. Mill says, in the peroration of a powerful address, ``I do not attempt to stimulate you with the prospect of direct rewards, either earthly or heavenly; the less we think about being rewarded in either way the better for us'', I think it is a hard saying, too hard for human nature. The demand that happiness shall be connected with virtue cannot be finally quelled in this way; but for the purposes of our Society I am ready to adopt, and should prefer to adopt, Mill's position.

And this leads me naturally to a point of very practical moment---the relation of our Society to the Christian Churches. For one great function of the religious teaching of the Churches---in all ages---has been the supply of extra-mundane motives stimulating men to the performance of duty. Such motives have been both of higher and lower kinds, appealing respectively to different elements of our nature---fears of hell-fire and outer darkness, of wailing and gnashing of teeth, for the brutal and selfish element in us, that can hardly be kept down without these coarse restraints; while to our higher part it has been shown how heavenly love in saints has fused into one the double nature of good; how---like earthly love in its moments of intensity---it has

``Touched the chord of self that trembling passed in
music out of sight.''

Well, in all this---if my view be adopted---the Ethical Society will make no attempt to compete with the Churches. We shall contemplate the relation of virtue to the happiness of the virtuous agent, as we believe it actually to be in the present world, and not refer to an future world in which we may hope for compensation for the apparent injustices of the present. And in thus limiting ourselves to mundane motives we shall, I hope, keep a middle path between optimism and pessimism. That is, we shall not profess to prove that the apparent sacrifices of self-interest which duty imposes are never in the long run real sacrifices; nor, on the other hand, shall we ignore or underrate the noble and refined satisfactions which experience shows to attend the resolute choice of virtue in spite of all such sacrifices---

``The stubborn thistles bursting
Into glossy purples, which outredden
All voluptuous garden-roses.''

It may, however, be said that it is not merely the function of Churches to supply motives for the performance of duty, but also to teach what duty is, and that here their work must inevitably coincide---and perhaps clash---with that undertaken by an Ethical Society. My answer would be that there is at least a large region of secular duty in which thoughtful Christians commonly recognize that an ideal of conduct can be, and ought to be, worked out by the light of reason independently of revelation; and I should recommend our Society to confine its attention to this secular region. Here no doubt some of us may pursue the quest of moral truth by study or discussion in a non-religious spirit, others in a religious spirit; but I conceive that we have room for both. As a Society, I conceive that our attitude ought to be at once unexclusive as regards the non-religious, and unaggressive as regards all forms of Christian creed.

In saying this, I keep in view the difficulty that many feel in separating at all the ideas of morality and religion, and I have no wish to sharpen the distinction. Indeed, I myself can hardly conceive a working Ethical Society of which the aim would not include in essentials the apostle's definition of the pure service of religion. We might characterize it as the aim of being in the world and yet not of it, working strenuously for the improvement of mundane affairs, and yet keeping ourselves, as the apostle says, ``unspotted of the world''---that is, in modern phrase, keeping clear of the compromises with sordid interests and vulgar ambitions which the practical standards of all classes and sections of society are too apt to admit. Of such compromises I will say a word presently: my point now is that the maintenance of an ideal in this sense unworldly must be the concern of any Ethical Society worthy of the name, nor do I see why those who habitually contemplate this ideal from a religious point of view should be unable to co-operate with those who habitually contemplate it from a purely ethical point of view. I do not say that there are no difficulties in such co-operation; but I am sure that we all bring with us a sincere desire to minimize these difficulties, and if so, I do not see why they should not be avoided or overcome.

To sum up: the region in which we are to move I conceive as, philosophically, a middle region, the place of intermediate ethical generalizations which we are content to conceive in a rough and approximate way, avoiding fundamental controversies as far as we can; while from a religious point of view it is a secular but not therefore irreligious region, in which we pursue merely mundane ends, but yet not in a worldly spirit.

But it remains to define more clearly its relation to particular practical problems. In the present age it is impossible that any group of educated persons, spontaneously constituted by their common interest in practical ethics, should not have their attention prominently drawn to the numerous schemes of social improvement on which philanthropic effort is being expended. In this way we may be easily led in our ethical discussions to debate one after another such practical questions as, ``Shall we work for State-aided emigration, or promote recreative education, or try to put down sweating? Shall we spend our money in providing open spaces for the poor, or our leisure on a Charity Organization Committee?'' Now I have no doubt myself that persons of education, especially if they have comparative wealth and leisure, ought to interest themselves in some or all of these things; and I think it belongs to us in Cambridge, not only to diffuse a general conviction of the importance of this kind of work, but also to encourage a searching examination of the grounds on which particular schemes are urged on the public attention. But in this examination a detailed study of social facts necessarily comes in along with the study of principles, and---though I have no wish to draw a hard and fast line---I should be disposed to regard this study of facts as lying in the main beyond the province of our Society, whose attention should be rather concentrated on principles. should propose to leave it to some economic or philanthropic association to examine how far an alleged social want exists, and how urgent it is, and by what particular methods it may best be satisfied or removed. What we have rather to consider is how far the eleemosynary or philanthropic intervention of private outsiders in such cases is in accordance with a sound general view of the relation of the individual to his society. It is with the general question, ``What social classes owe to each other'', that we are primarily concerned, though in trying to find the right answer to this question we may obtain useful instruction from a consideration of the particular fields of work to which I have referred.

But the moral problem offered by the social relations of different classes---though specially prominent in the thought of the present age---is not the only problem causing practical perplexities that such discussions as ours might reduce. There are many other such problems in our complicated modern life---even omitting those obviously unfit for public oral discussion. One class of them which specially interests me is presented by the divergence of the current practical standards of particular sections of the community, on certain points, from the common moral ideal which the community as a whole still maintains. We feel that such divergences are to a great extent an evil, the worldliness which we have to avoid; but yet we think them in some degree legitimate, and the difficulty lies in drawing the line. Any careful discussion of such deflections must lead to what bears the unpopular name of Casuistry. I think, however, that the odium which in the seventeenth century overwhelmed the systematic discussion by theologians of difficult and doubtful cases of morals---though undeniably in part deserved---went to an unreasonable length, and obscured the real importance of the study against which it was directed. There is no doubt that individuals are strongly tempted to have recourse to casuistry in order to find excuses for relaxing in their own favour the restraints of moral rules which they find inconvenient; and hence a casuist has come to be regarded with suspicion as a moralist who aims at providing his clients with the most plausible excuses available for this purpose. But though certain casuists have been reasonably suspected of this misapplication of their knowledge and ingenuity, the proper task of casuistry has always been quite different; the question with which it has properly been concerned is how far, in the particular circumstances of certain classes of persons, the common good demands a special interpretation or modification of some generally accepted moral rule. This, at any rate, is the kind of casuistical problem that I have now in view: and I think that any morality that refuses to deal with such problems must confess itself inadequate for the practical guidance of men engaged in the business of the world; since modifications of morality to meet the special needs of special classes are continually claimed, and more or less admitted by serious and well-meaning persons. Thus it is widely held that barristers must be allowed to urge persuasively for their clients considerations that they know to be false or misleading; that a clergyman may be a most virtuous man without exactly believing the creeds he says or the articles he signs; that a physiologist must be allowed to torture innocent animals; that a general in war must be allowed to use spies and at the same time to hang the spies of the conflicting general. I do not say that most educated persons would accept broadly all these relaxations, but that they would at least admit some of them more or less. Especially in the action of states or governments as such is this kind of divergence admitted, though vaguely and rather reluctantly. When Pope asked---using the names of two noted criminals:

``Is it for Bond or Peter, paltry things,
To pay their debts or keep their faith like kings?"

the epigram was undeniably deserved: still we do not commonly think that governments are bound to keep their faith quite like private individuals; we do not think the repudiating a treaty between nation and nation to be like breaking a promise between man and man. On all these and similar points I think it would be of real practical utility if discussion could help us to clearer views. For there is a serious danger that when the need of such relaxations is once admitted they may be carried too far; that, in the esoteric morality of any particular profession or trade, ordinary morality will be put aside altogether on certain particular questions, as the opinion of ignorant outsiders; and no result could be more unfavourable than this to the promotion of ethical interests.

So far I have been speaking of particular and limited conflicts between what may be called sectional morality and general morality. But there are departments of society and life of which the relation to ethics is perplexing in a more broad and general way, just because of the elevated and ideal character of their aims---I mean art and science. The practical maxims of some classes of artists and scientific men are liable to collide with common morality in the manner just mentioned---e.g., certain painters or novelists may deliberately disregard the claims of sexual purity---but it is not of these limited conflicts that I now wish to speak, but of the perplexity one finds in fixing the general relation of the ends of Art and Science to moral ends. Perhaps it will be impossible to deal with this without falling into the metaphysical controversies that I have abjured; but the problem often presents itself to me entirely apart from the questions of the schools. When I surrender myself to the pursuit of truth or the impressions of art, I find myself in either case in a world absorbing and satisfying to my highest nature, in which, nevertheless, morality seems to occupy a very subordinate place, and in which---for the more effective realization of the aesthetic or scientific ideal---it seems necessary that morality should be thus subordinated. The difficulty seems to be greater in the case of the aesthetic ideal, because the emotional conflict is greater. The lover of truth has to examine with neutral curiosity the bad and the good in this mixed world, in order to penetrate its laws; but he need not sympathize with the bad or in any way like its existence. But this is harder for the lover of beauty: since evil---even moral evil---is an element in the contrasts and combinations that give him the delight of beauty. If, as Renan says, such a career as Cesar Borgia's is ``beautiful as a tempest or an abyss'', it is difficult for a lover of beauty not to rejoice that there was a Cesar Borgia. One may even say that in proportion as the sentiment of beauty becomes absorbing and quasi-religious, this divergence from morality is liable to become more marked: because what is bad in a picturesque and exciting way comes to be more and more felt as discord artfully harmonized in the music that all things make to God.

Well, is this feeling in any degree legitimate? and if so, how is it to be reconciled with our moral aspirations? I do not expect to attain a single cogently-reasoned answer, which all must accept, to either of these questions. They will probably always be somewhat differently answered by different sets and schools of thoughtful persons. But I think they may illustrate the kind of questions on which we may hope to clear up our ideas and reduce the extent of our mutual disagreement by frank and sympathetic discussion.

[The limits above suggested were thought to be too narrow by the leading spirits of the London Ethical Society. Accordingly, as the reader will see, in the next address---delivered as President of the latter body---I tried to adapt my general view of the nature of the work that such a society might profitably undertake to a wider conception of its scope.]

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