Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV


§1. We have seen that the virtue of Practical Wisdom comprehends all others, so far as virtuous conduct in each department necessarily results from a clear knowledge and choice of the true ultimate end or ends of action, and of the best means to the attainment of such end or ends. From this point of view we may consider the names of the special virtues as denoting special departments of this knowledge; which it is now our business to examine more closely.

When, however, we contemplate these, we discern that there are other virtues, which, in different ways, may be regarded as no less comprehensive than Wisdom. Especially in modern times, since the revival of independent ethical speculation, there have always been thinkers who have maintained, in some form, the view that Benevolence is a supreme and architectonic virtue, comprehending and summing up all the others, and fitted to regulate them and determine their proper limits and mutual relations. This widely supported claim to supremacy seems an adequate reason for giving to Benevolence the first place after Wisdom, in our examination of the commonly received maxims of Duty and Virtue.

The general maxim of Benevolence would be commonly said to be, ``that we ought to love all our fellow-men'', or ``all our fellow-creatures'': but, as we have already seen, there is some doubt among moralists as to the precise meaning of the term ``love'', in this connexion: since, according to Kant and others, what is morally prescribed as the Duty of Benevolence is not strictly the affection of love or kindness, so far as this contains an emotional element, but only the determination of the will to seek the good or happiness of others. And I agree that it cannot be a strict duty to feel an emotion, so far as it is not directly within the power of the Will to produce it at any given time. Still (as I have said) it seems to me that this emotional element is included in our common notion of Charity or Philanthropy, regarded as a Virtue: and I think it paradoxical to deny that it raises the mere beneficent disposition of the will to a higher degree of excellence, and renders its effects better. If this be so, it will be a duty to cultivate the affection so far as it is possible to do so: and indeed this would seem (no less than the permanent disposition to do good) to be a normal effect of repeated beneficent resolves and actions: since, as has often been observed, a benefit tends to excite love in the agent towards the recipient of the benefit, no less than in the recipient towards the agent. It must be admitted, however, that this effect is less certain than the production of the benevolent disposition; and that some men are naturally so unattractive to others that the latter can feel no affection, though they may entertain benevolent dispositions, towards the former. At any rate, it would seem to be a duty generally, and till we find the effort fruitless, to cultivate kind affections towards those whom we ought to benefit; not only by doing kind actions, but by placing ourselves under any natural influences which experience shows to have a tendency to produce affection.

But we have still to ascertain more particularly the nature of the actions in which this affection or disposition of will is shown. They are described popularly as `doing good'. Now we have before noticed that the notion `good', in ordinary thought, includes, undistinguished and therefore unharmonised, the different conceptions that men form of the ultimate end of rational action. It follows that there is a corresponding ambiguity in the phrase `doing good': since, though many would unhesitatingly take it to mean the promotion of Happiness, there are others who, holding that Perfection and not Happiness is the true ultimate Good, consistently maintain that the real way to 'do good' to people is to increase their virtue or aid their progress towards Perfection. There are, however, even among anti-Epicurean moralists, some---such as Kant---who, take in opposite view, and argue that my neighbour's Virtue or Perfection cannot be an end to me, because it depends upon the free exercise of his own volition, which I cannot help or hinder. But on the same grounds it might equally well be argued that I cannot cultivate Virtue in myself, but only practise it from moment to moment: whereas even Kant does not deny that we can cultivate virtuous dispositions in ourselves, and that in other ways than by the performance of virtuous acts: and Common Sense always assumes this to be possible and prescribes it as a duty. And surely it is equally undeniable that we can cultivate virtue in others : and indeed such cultivation is clearly the object not only of education, but of a large part of social action, especially of our expression of praise and blame. And if Virtue is an ultimate end for ourselves, to be sought for its own sake, benevolence must lead us to do what is possible to obtain it for our neighbour. And indeed we see that in the case of intense individual affection, the friend or lover generally longs that the beloved should be excellent and admirable as well as happy: perhaps, however, this is because love involves preference, and the lover desires that the beloved should be really worthy of preference as well as actually preferred by him, as otherwise there is a conflict between Love and Reason.

On the whole then, I do not find, in the common view of what Benevolence bids us promote for others, any clear selection indicated between the different and possibly conflicting elements of Good as commonly conceived. But we may say, I think, that the promotion of Happiness is practically the chief part of what Common Sense considers to be prescribed as the external duty of Benevolence: and for clearness' sake we will confine our attention to this in the remainder of the discussion. It should be observed that by happiness we are not to understand simply the gratification of the actual desires of others, for men too often desire what would tend to their unhappiness in the long run: but the greatest possible amount of pleasure or satisfaction for them on the whole---in short, such happiness as was taken to be the rational end for each individual in the system of Egoistic Hedonism. It is this that Rational Benevolence bids us provide for others; and if one who loves is led from affectionate sympathy with the longings of the beloved to gratify those longings believing that the gratification will be attended with an overplus of painful consequences, we commonly say that such affection is weak and foolish.

[ME, Wisdom and Self-control, §3]
[ME, Benevolence, §2]