Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter I


§2. Here, perhaps, it may be said that in thus defining Intuitionism I have omitted its most fundamental characteristic; that the Intuitionist properly speaking---in contrast with the Utilitarian---does not judge actions by an external standard at all---that true morality, in his view, is not concerned with outward actions as such, but with the state of mind in which acts are done---in short with ``intentions'' and ``motives''.[1] I think, however, that this objection is partly due to a misunderstanding. Moralists of all schools, I conceive, would agree that the moral judgments which we pass on actions relate primarily to intentional actions regarded as intentional. In other words, what we judge to be `wrong'---in the strictest ethical sense---is not any part of the actual effects, as such, of the muscular movements immediately caused by the agent's volition, but the effects which he foresaw in willing the act; or, more strictly, his volition or choice of realising the effects as foreseen. When I speak therefore of acts, I must be understood to mean---unless the contrary is stated---acts presumed to be intentional and judged as such: on this point I do not think that any dispute need arise.

The case of motives is different and requires careful discussion. In the first place the distinction between ``motive'' and ``intention'' in ordinary language is not very precise: since we apply the term ``motive'' to foreseen consequences of an act, so far as they are conceived to be objects of desire to the agent, or to the desire of such consequences: and when we speak of the intention of an act we usually, no doubt, have desired consequences in view. I think, however, that for purposes of exact moral or jural discussion, it is best to include under the term `intention' all the consequences of an act that are foreseen as certain or probable; since it will be admitted that we cannot evade responsibility for any foreseen bad consequences of our acts by the plea that we felt no desire for them, either for their own sake or as means to ulterior ends: such undesired accompaniments of the desired results of our volitions are clearly chosen or willed by us. Hence the intention of an act may be judged to be wrong, while the motive is recognised as good; as when a man commits perjury to save a parent's or a benefactor's life. Such judgments are, in fact, continually passed in common moral discourse. It may, however, be said that an act cannot be right, even when the intention is such as duty would prescribe, if it be done from a bad motive: that---to take a case suggested by Bentham---a man who prosecutes from malice a person whom he believes to be guilty, does not really act rightly; for, though it may be his duty to prosecute, he ought not to do it from malice. It is doubtless true that it is our duty to get rid of bad motives if we can; so that a man's intention cannot be wholly right, unless it includes the repression, so far as possible, of a motive known to be bad. But no one, I think, will contend that we can always suppress entirely a strong emotion; and such suppression will be especially difficult if we are to do the act to which the wrong impulse prompts; while yet, if that act be clearly a duty which no one else can so properly perform, it would be absurd to say that we ought to omit it because we cannot altogether exclude an objectionable motive. It is sometimes said that, though we may not be able in doing our duty to exclude a bad motive altogether from our minds, it is still possible to refuse to act from it. But I think that this is only possible so far as the details of action to which a right motive would prompt differ to some extent from those to which a wrong motive would prompt. No doubt this is often the case:---thus, in Bentham's example, a malevolent prosecutor may be prompted to take unfair advantage of his enemy, or cause him needless pain by studied insults; and it is obviously possible for him---and his duty---to resist such promptings. But so far as precisely the same action is prompted by two different motives, both present in my consciousness, I am not conscious of any power to cause this action to be determined by one of the two motives to the exclusion of the other. In other words, while a man can resolve to aim at any end which he conceives as a possible result of his voluntary action, he cannot simultaneously resolve not to aim at any other end which he believes will be promoted by the same action ; and if that other end be an object of desire to him, he cannot, while aiming at it, refuse to act from this desire.[4]

On the whole, then, I conclude (1) that while many actions are commonly judged to be made better or worse by the presence or absence of certain motives, our judgments of right and wrong strictly speaking relate to intentions, as distinguished from motives; and (2) that while intentions affecting the agent's own feelings and character are morally prescribed no less than intentions to produce certain external effects, still, the latter form the primary---though not the sole---content of the main prescriptions of duty, as commonly affirmed and understood: but the extent to which this is the case, will become more clear as we proceed.

It has indeed been maintained by moralists of influence that the moral value of our conduct depends upon the degree to which we are actuated by the one motive which they regard as truly moral: viz. the desire or free choice of doing what is right as such, realising duty or virtue for duty or virtue's sake: and that a perfectly good act must be done entirely from this motive. I think, however, that it is difficult to combine this view---which I may conveniently distinguish as Stoical---with the belief, which modern orthodox moralists have usually been concerned to maintain, that it is always a man's true interest to act virtuously. I do not mean that a man who holds this belief must necessarily be an egoist: but it seems to me impossible for him to exclude from his motives a regard for his own interest, while yet believing that it will be promoted by the act which he is willing If, therefore, we hold that this self-regard impairs the moral value of an act otherwise virtuous, and at the same time hold that virtue is always conducive to the virtuous agent's interest, we seem driven to the conclusion that knowledge of the true relation between virtue and happiness is an insuperable obstacle to the attainment of moral perfection. I cannot accept this paradox: and in subsequent chapters I shall try to show that the Stoical view of moral goodness is not on the whole sustained by a comprehensive survey and comparison of common moral judgments: since in some cases acts appear to have the quality of virtue even more strikingly when performed from some motive other than the love of virtue as such. For the present I wish rather to point out that the doctrine above stated is diametrically opposed to the view that the universal or normal motives of human action are either particular desires of pleasure or aversions to pain for the agent himself, or the more general regard to his happiness on the whole which I term Self-love that it also excludes the less extreme doctrine that duties may be to some extent properly done from such self-regarding motives; and that one or other of these positions has frequently been held by writers who have expressly adopted an Intuitional method of Ethics. For instance, we find Locke laying down, without reserve or qualification, that ``good and evil are nothing but pleasure and pain, or that which occasions or procures pleasure or pain to us''[6]: so that ``it would be utterly in vain to suppose a rule set to the free actions of man, without annexing it to some reward or punishment to determine his will''. On the other hand, he expresses, with no less emphasis, the conviction that ``from self-evident propositions, by necessary consequences, as incontestable as those in mathematics, the measures of right and wrong might be made out''[7], so that ``morality might be placed among the sciences capable of demonstration''. The combination of these two doctrines gives us the view that moral rules are essentially laws of God, which men are impelled to obey, solely or mainly, from fear or hope of divine punishments or rewards; and some such view as this seems to be widely accepted, by plain men without very refined moral sensibilities.

As an example, again, of thinkers who, while recognising in human nature a disinterested regard for duty or virtue as such, still consider that self-love is a proper and legitimate motive to right conduct, we may refer to Butler and his disciples. Butler regards ``reasonable self-love'' as not merely a normal motive to human action, but as being---no less than conscience---a ``chief or superior principle in the nature of man''; so that an action ``becomes unsuitable'' to this nature, if the principle of self-love be violated. Accordingly the aim of his teaching is not to induce men to choose duty rather than interest, but to convince them that there is no inconsistency between the two; that self-love and conscience lead ``to one and the same course of life''.

This intermediate doctrine appears to me to be more in harmony with the common sense of mankind on the whole than either of the extreme views before contrasted. But I do not conceive that any one of the three positions is inconsistent with fundamental assumptions of the Intuitional method. Even those who hold that human beings cannot reasonably be expected to conform to moral rules disinterestedly, or from any other motive than that supplied by the sanctions divinely attached to them, still commonly conceive God as supreme Reason, whose laws must be essentially reasonable: and so far as such laws are held to be cognisable by the `light of nature'---so that morality, as Locke says, may be placed among demonstrative sciences---the method of determining them will be none the less intuitional because it is combined with the belief that God will reward their observance and punish their violation. On the other hand those who hold that regard for duty as duty is an indispensable condition of acting rightly, would generally admit that acting rightly is not adequately defined as acting from a pure desire to act rightly; that though, in a certain sense, a man who sincerely desires and intends to act rightly does all he can, and completely fulfils duty, still such a man may have a wrong judgment as to the particulars of his duty, and therefore, in another sense, may act wrongly. If this be admitted, it is evident that, even on the view that the desire or resolution to fulfil duty as such is essential to right action, a distinction between two kinds of rightness is required; which we may express by saying that an act is---on this view---``formally'' right, if the agent in willing is moved by pure desire to fulfil duty or chooses duty for duty's sake; ``materially'' right, if he intends the right particular effects. This distinction being taken, it becomes plain that there is no reason why the same principles and method for determining material rightness, or rightness of particular effects, should not be adopted by thinkers who differ most widely on the question of formal rightness; and it is, obviously, with material rightness that the work of the systematic moralist is mainly concerned.

[ME, Intuitionism, §1]
[ME, Intuitionism, §3]