Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter V


§1. The belief in the connexion of Happiness with Duty is one to which we find a general tendency among civilised men, at least after a certain stage in civilisation has been reached. But it is doubtful whether it would be affirmed, among ourselves, as a generalisation from experience, and not rather as a matter of direct Divine Revelation, or an inevitable inference from the belief that the world is governed by a perfectly Good and Omnipotent Being. To examine thoroughly the validity of the latter belief is one of the most important tasks that human reason can attempt: but involving as it does an exhaustive inquiry into the evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, it could hardly be included within the scope of the present treatise. Here, then, I shall only consider the coincidence of Duty and Happiness in so far as it is maintained by arguments drawn from experience and supposed to be realised in our present earthly life. Perhaps, as so restricted, the coincidence can hardly be said to be ``currently believed'': indeed it may be suggested that the opposite belief is implied in the general admission of the necessity of rewards and punishments in a future state, in order to exhibit and realise completely the moral government of the world. But reflection will show that this implication is not necessary---for it is possible to hold that even here virtue is always rewarded and vice punished, so far as to make the virtuous course of action always the most prudent; while yet the rewards and punishments are not sufficient to satisfy our sense of justice. Admitting that the virtuous man is often placed on earth in circumstances so adverse that his life is not as happy as that of many less virtuous; it is still possible to maintain that by virtue he will gain the maximum of happiness that can be gained under these circumstances, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. And this view has certainly been held by moralists of reputation on grounds drawn from actual experience of human life; and seems often to be confidently put forward on similar grounds by popular preachers and moralisers. It appears therefore desirable to subject this opinion to a careful and impartial examination. In conducting this examination, at the present stage of our inquiry, we shall have to use the received notions of Duty without further definition or analysis: but it is commonly assumed by those whose view we are to examine that these conceptions---as they are found in the moral consciousness of ordinary well-meaning persons---are at least approximately valid and trustworthy; and the preceding chapters will have fully shown that the generalisations of Hedonism must be established, if at all, by large considerations and decisive preponderances, and that it would be idle in considering a question of this kind to take account of slight differences, and to pretend to weigh in our mental scales comparatively small portions of happiness.[2]

[ME, Objective Hedonism and Common Sense, §3]
[ME, Happiness and Duty, §2]