Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV


§2. It remains to ask towards whom this disposition or affection is to be maintained, and to what extent. And, firstly, it is not quite clear whether we owe benevolence to men alone, or to other animals also. That is, there is a general agreement that we ought to treat all animals with kindness, so far as to avoid causing them unnecessary pain; but it is questioned whether this is directly due to sentient beings as such, or merely prescribed as a means of cultivating kindly dispositions towards men. Intuitional moralists of repute have maintained this latter view: I think, however, that Common Sense is disposed to regard this as a hard-hearted paradox, and to hold with Bentham that the pain of animals is per se to be avoided. Passing to consider how our benevolence ought to be distributed among our fellow-men, we may conveniently make clear the Intuitional view by contrasting it with that of Utilitarianism. For Utilitarianism is sometimes said to resolve all virtue into universal and impartial Benevolence: it does not, however, prescribe that we should love all men equally, but that we should aim at Happiness generally as our ultimate end, and so consider the happiness of any one individual as equally important with the equal happiness of any other, as an element of this total; and should distribute our kindness so as to make this total as great as possible, in whatever way this result may be attained. Practically of course the distribution of any individual's services will, even on this view, be unequal: as each man will obviously promote the general happiness best by rendering services to a limited number, and to some more than others: but the inequality, on the Utilitarian theory, is secondary and derivative. Common Sense, however, seems rather to regard it as immediately certain without any such deduction that we owe special dues of kindness to those who stand in special relations to us. The question then is, on what principles, when any case of doubt or apparent conflict of duties arises, we are to determine the nature, and extent of the special claims to affection and kind services which arise out of these particular relations of human beings. Are problems of this kind to be solved by considering which course of conduct is on the whole most conducive to the general happiness, or can we find independent and self-evident principles sufficiently clear and precise to furnish practical guidance in such cases? The different answers given to this fundamental question will obviously constitute the main difference between the Intuitional and Utilitarian methods; so far as the `good' which the benevolent man desires and seeks to confer on others is understood to be Happiness.

When, however, we come to investigate this question we are met with a difficulty in the arrangement of the subject, which, like most difficulties of classification, deserves attentive consideration, as it depends upon important characteristics of the matter that has to be arranged. In a narrower sense of the term, Benevolence is not unfrequently distinguished from---and even contrasted with---Justice; we may of course exercise both towards the same persons, but we commonly assume that the special function of Benevolence begins where Justice ends; and it is rather with this special function that we are concerned in considering claims to affection, and to kind services normally prompted by affection. At the same time, if we consider these services as strictly due to persons in certain relations, the moral notion under which these duties are presented to us is not easily distinguishable from that of Justice; while yet these duties can hardly be withdrawn from the sphere of Benevolence in the narrowest sense. It is sometimes given as a distinction between Justice and Benevolence, that the services which Justice prescribes can be claimed as a right by their recipient, while Benevolence is essentially unconstrained: but we certainly think (e.g.) that parents have a right to filial affection and to the services that naturally spring from it. It is further said that the duties of Affection are essentially indefinite, while those we classify under the bead of Justice are precisely defined: and no doubt this is partly true. We not only find it hard to say exactly how much a son owes his parents, but we are even reluctant to investigate this: we do not think that he ought to ask for a precise measure of his duty, in order that he may do just so much and no more; while a great part of Justice consists in the observance of stated agreements and precise rules. At the same time it is difficult to maintain this distinction as a ground of classification; for the duties of Affection are admittedly liable to come into competition with each other, and with other duties; and when this apparent conflict of duties occurs, we manifestly need as precise a definition as possible of the conflicting obligations, in order to make a reasonable choice among the alternatives of conduct presented to us. Accordingly in the following chapter (§2) I shall show how this competition of claims renders our common notion of Justice applicable to these no less than to other duties: meanwhile, it seems proper to treat here separately of all duties that arise out of relations where affection normally exists, and where it ought to be cultivated, and where its absence is deplored if not blamed. For all are agreed that there are such duties, the non-performance of which is a ground for censure, beyond the obligations imposed by law, or arising out of specific contract, which will come under a different head.

Beyond these duties, again, there seems to be a region of performance where the services rendered cannot properly be claimed as of debt, and blame is not felt to be due for non-performance: and with regard to this region, too,---which clearly belongs to Benevolence as contrasted with Justice---there is some difficulty in stating the view of Common Sense morality. There are two questions to be considered. We have to ask, firstly, whether services rendered from affection, over and above what strict Duty is thought to require, are to be deemed Virtuous; and secondly, whether the affection itself is to be considered worthy of admiration as a moral excellence, and therefore a mental condition that we should strive to attain. I think that Common Sense clearly regards as virtuous the disposition to render substantial positive services to men at large, and promote their well-being,---whether such a disposition springs out of natural kindliness of feeling towards human beings generally, or whether it is merely the result of moral effort and resolve-provided it is accompanied by an adequate degree of intellectual enlightenment. And the same may be said of the less comprehensive affection that impels men to promote the well-being of the community of which they are members; and again of the affection that normally tends to accompany the recognition of rightful rule or leadership in others. In some ages and countries Patriotism and Loyalty have been regarded as almost supreme among the virtues; and even now Common Sense gives them a high place.

But when we pass to more restricted, and, ordinarily more intense, affections, such as those which we feel for relations and friends, it becomes more difficult to determine whether they are to be considered as moral excellences and cultivated as such.

First, to avoid confusion, we must remark that Love is not merely a desire to do good to the object beloved, although it always involves such a desire. It is primarily a pleasurable emotion, which seems to depend upon a certain sense of union with another person, and it includes, besides the benevolent impulse, a desire of the society of the beloved: and this element may predominate over the former, and even conflict with it, so that the true interests of the beloved may be sacrificed. In this case we call the affection selfish, and do not praise it at all, but rather blame. If now we ask whether intense Love for an individual, considered merely as a benevolent impulse, is in itself a moral excellence, it is difficult to extract a very definite answer from Common Sense: but I think it inclines on the whole to the negative. We are no doubt generally inclined to admire any kind of conspicuously `altruistic' conduct and any form of intense love, however restricted in its scope; yet it hardly seems that the susceptibility to such individualised benevolent emotions is exactly regarded as an essential element of moral Perfection, which we ought to strive after and cultivate like other moral excellences; we seem, in fact, to doubt whether such effort is desirable in this case, at least beyond the point up to which such affection is thought to be required for the performance of recognised duties. Again, we think it natural and desirable that---as generally speaking each person feels strong affection for only a few individuals,---in his efforts to promote directly the well-being of others he should, to a great extent, follow the promptings of such restricted affection: but we are hardly prepared to recommend that he should render services to special individuals beyond what he is bound to render, and such as are the natural expression of an eager and overflowing affection, without having any such affection to express: although, as was before said, in certain intimate relations we do not approve of the limits of duty being too exactly measured.

On the whole, then, I conclude that---while we praise and admire enthusiastic Benevolence and Patriotism, and are touched and charmed by the spontaneous lavish outflow of Gratitude, Friendship, and the domestic affections---still what chiefly concerns us as moralists, under the present head, is the ascertainment of the right rules of distribution of services and kind acts, in so far as we consider the rendering of these to be morally obligatory. For provided a man fulfils these duties (and observes the other recognised rules of morality) Common Sense is not prepared to say how far it is right or good that he should sacrifice any other noble and worthy aim---such as the cultivation of knowledge or any of the fine arts---to the claims of philanthropy or personal affection: there seem to be no generally accepted ``intuitional'' principles for determining such a choice of alternatives.[3]

[ME, Benevolence, §1]
[ME, Benevolence, §3]