Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter VIII


§1. I have used the term `Intuitional' to denote the view of ethics which regards as the practically ultimate end of moral actions their conformity to certain rules or dictates of Duty unconditionally prescribed. There is, however, considerable ambiguity as to the exact antithesis implied by the terms `intuition', `intuitive', and their congeners, as currently used in ethical discussion, which we must now endeavour to remove. Writers who maintain that we have `intuitive knowledge' of the rightness of actions usually mean that this rightness is ascertained by simply ``looking at'' the actions themselves, without considering their ulterior consequences. This view, indeed, can hardly be extended to the whole range of duty; since no morality ever existed which did not consider ulterior consequences to some extent. Prudence or Forethought has commonly been reckoned a virtue: and all modern lists of Virtues have included Rational Benevolence, which aims at the happiness of other human beings generally, and therefore necessarily takes into consideration even remote effects of actions. It must be observed, too, that it is difficult to draw the line between an act and its consequences: as the effects consequent on each of our volitions form a continuous series of indefinite extension, and we seem to be conscious of causing all these effects, so far as at the moment of volition we foresee them to be probable. However, we find that in the common notions of different kinds of actions, a line is actually drawn between the results included in the notion and regarded as forming part of the act, and those considered as its consequences. For example, in speaking truth to a jury, I may possibly foresee that my words, operating along with other statements and indications, will unavoidably lead them to a wrong conclusion as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, as certainly as I foresee that they will produce a right impression as to the particular matter of fact to which I am testifying: still, we should commonly consider the latter foresight or intention to determine the nature of the act as an act of veracity, while the former merely relates to a consequence. We must understand then that the disregard of consequences, which the Intuitional view is here taken to imply, only relates to certain determinate classes of action (such as Truth-speaking) where common usage of terms adequately defines what events are to be included in the general notions of the acts, and what regarded as their consequences.

But again: we have to observe that men may and do judge remote as well as immediate results to be in themselves good, and such as we ought to seek to realise, without considering them in relation to the feelings of sentient beings. I have already assumed this to be the view of those who adopt the general Perfection, as distinct from the Happiness, of human society as their ultimate end; and it would seem to be the view of many who concentrate their efforts on some more particular results, other than morality, such as the promotion of Art or Knowledge. Such a view, if expressly distinguished from Hedonism, might properly be classed as Intuitional, but in a sense wider than that defined in the preceding paragraph: i.e. it would be meant that the results in question are judged to be good immediately, and not by inference from experience of the pleasures which they produce. We have, therefore, to admit a wider use of `Intuition', as equivalent to `immediate judgment as to what ought to be done or aimed at'. It should, however, be observed that the current contrast between `intuitive' or `a-priori' and `inductive' or `a-posteriori' morality commonly involves a certain confusion of thought. For what the `inductive' moralist professes to know by induction, is commonly not the same thing as what the `intuitive' moralist professes to know by intuition. In the former case it is the conduciveness to pleasure of certain kinds of action that is methodically ascertained: in the latter case, their rightness: there is therefore no proper opposition. If Hedonism claims to give authoritative guidance, this can only be in virtue of the principle that pleasure is the only reasonable ultimate end of human action: and this principle cannot be known by induction from experience. Experience can at most tell us that all men always do seek pleasure as their ultimate end (that it does not support this conclusion I have already tried to show): it cannot tell us that any one ought so to seek it. If this latter proposition is legitimately affirmed in respect either of private or of general happiness, it must either be immediately known to be true, and therefore, we may say, a moral intuition---or be inferred ultimately from premises which include at least one such moral intuition; hence either species of Hedonism, regarded from the point of view primarily taken in this treatise, might be legitimately said to be in a certain sense `intuitional'. It seems, however, to be the prevailing opinion of ordinary moral persons, and of most of the writers who have maintained the existence of moral intuitions, that certain kinds of actions are unconditionally prescribed without regard to ulterior consequences: and I have accordingly treated this doctrine as a distinguishing characteristic of the Intuitional method, during the main part of the detailed examination of that method which I attempt in Book iii.

[ME, Egoism and Self-Love, §2]
[ME, Intuitionism, §2]