Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter III


§4. 1 am aware that some persons will be disposed to answer all the preceding argument by a simple denial that they can find in their consciousness any such unconditional or categorical imperative as I have been trying to exhibit. If this is really the final result of self-examination in any case, there is no more to be said. I, at least, do not know how to impart the notion of moral obligation to any one who is entirely devoid of it. I think, however, that many of those who give this denial only mean to deny that they have any consciousness of moral obligation to actions without reference to their consequences; and would not really deny that they recognise some universal end or ends---whether it be the general happiness, or wellbeing otherwise understood---as that at which it is ultimately reasonable to aim, subordinating to its attainment the gratification of any personal desires that may conflict with this aim. But in this view, as I have before said, the unconditional imperative plainly comes in as regards the end, which is---explicitly or implicitly---recognised as an end at which all men `ought' to aim; and it call hardly be denied that the recognition of an end as ultimately reasonable involves the recognition of an obligation to do such acts as most conduce to the end. The obligation is not indeed ``unconditional'', but it does not depend on the existence of any non-rational desires or aversions. And nothing that has been said in the preceding section is intended as an argument in favour of Intuitionism, as against Utilitarianism or any other method that treats moral rules as relative to General Good or Well-being. For instance, nothing that I have said is inconsistent with the view that Truthspeaking is only valuable as a means to the preservation of society: only if it be admitted that it is valuable on this ground I should say that it is implied that the preservation of society---or some further end to which this preservation, again, is a means---must be valuable per se, and therefore something at which a rational being, as such, ought to aim. If it be granted that we need not look beyond the preservation of society, the primary `dictate of reason' in this case would be `that society ought to be preserved': but reason would also dictate that truth ought to be spoken, so far as truthspeaking is recognised as the indispensable or fittest means to this end: and the notion ``ought'' as used in either dictate is that which I have been trying to make clear.

So again, even those who bold that moral rules are only obligatory because it is the individual's interest to conform to them---thus regarding them as a particular species of prudential rules---do not thereby get rid of the `dictate of reason', so far as they recognise private interest or happiness as an end at which it is ultimately reasonable to aim. The conflict of Practical Reason with irrational desire remains an indubitable fact of our conscious experience, even if practical reason is interpreted to mean merely self-regarding Prudence. It is, indeed, maintained by Kant and others that it cannot properly be said to be a man's duty to promote his own happiness; since ``what every one inevitably wills cannot be brought under the notion of duty''. But even granting it to be in some sense true that a man's volition is always directed to the attainment of his own happiness, it does not follow that a man always does what he believes will be conducive to his own greatest happiness. As Butler urges, it is a matter of common experience that men indulge appetite or passion even when, in their own view, the indulgence is as clearly opposed to what they conceive to be their interest as it is to what they conceive to be their duty. Thus the notion `ought'---as expressing the relation of rational judgment to non-rational impulses---will find a place in the practical rules of any egoistic system, no less than in the rules of ordinary morality, understood as prescribing duty without reference to the agent's interest.

Here, however, it may be held that Egoism does not properly regard the agent's own greatest happiness as what he ``ought'' to aim at: but only as the ultimate end for the realisation of which he has, on the whole, a predominant desire; which may be temporarily overcome by particular passions and appetites, but ordinarily regains its predominance when these transient impulses have spent their force. I quite recognise that this is a view widely taken of egoistic action, and I propose to consider it in a subsequent chapter. But even if we discard the belief, that any end of action is unconditionally or ``categorically'' prescribed by reason, the notion `ought' as above explained is not thereby eliminated from our practical reasonings: it still remains in the ``hypothetical imperative'' which prescribes the fittest means to any end that we may have determined to aim at. When (e.g.) a physician says, ``If you wish to be healthy you ought to rise early'', this is not the same thing as saying ``early rising is an indispensable condition of the attainment of health''. This latter proposition expresses the relation of physiological facts on which the former is founded; but it is not merely this relation of facts that the word `ought' imports: it also implies the unreasonableness of adopting an end and refusing to adopt the means indispensable to its attainment. It may perhaps be argued that this is not only unreasonable but impossible: since adoption of an end means the preponderance of a desire for it, and if aversion to the indispensable means causes them not to be adopted although recognised as indispensable, the desire for the end is not preponderant and it ceases to be adopted. But this view is due, in my opinion, to a defective psychological analysis. According to my observation of consciousness, the adoption of an end as paramount---either absolutely or within certain limits---is quite a distinct psychical phenomenon from desire: it is a kind of volition, though it is, of course, specifically different from a volition initiating a particular immediate action. As a species intermediate between the two, we may place resolutions to act in a certain way at some future time: we continually make such resolutions, and sometimes when the time comes for carrying them out, we do in fact act otherwise under the influence of passion or mere habit, without consciously cancelling our previous resolve. This inconsistency of will our practical reason condemns as irrational, even apart from any judgment of approbation or disapprobation on either volition considered by itself. There is a similar inconsistency, between the adoption of an end and a general refusal to take whatever means we may see to be indispensable to its attainment: and if, when the time comes, we do not take such means while yet we do not consciously retract our adoption of the end, it can hardly be denied that we `ought' in consistency to act otherwise than we do. And such a contradiction as I have described, between a general resolution and a particular volition, is surely a matter of common experience.

[ME, Ethical Judgments, §3]
[ME, Pleasure and Desire, §1]