Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter IV


§5. 1 have placed Neighbourhood along with Kindred among the relations out of which a certain claim for mutual services is thought to spring. However, no one perhaps would say that mere local juxtaposition is in itself a ground of duties: it seems rather that neighbours naturally feel more sympathy with one another than with strangers, as the tie of common humanity is strengthened even by such conjunction and mutual association as mere neighbourhood (without cooperation or friendship) may involve, and a man in whom this effect is not produced is thought more or less inhuman. And so in large towns where this mutual sympathy does not so naturally grow up (for all the townsmen are in a sense neighbours, and one cannot easily sympathise with each individual in a multitude), the tie of neighbourhood is felt to be relaxed, and neighbour only claims from neighbour, as the nearest man, what one man may claim from another. For there are some services, slight in ordinary times but greater in the case of exceptional need, which any man is thought to have a right to ask from any other: so that a comparatively trifling circumstance may easily give a special direction to this general claim, and make it seem reasonable that the service should be asked from one person rather than another. Thus any degree of kinship seems to have this effect (since the representation of this tends to produce a feeling of union and consequent sympathy), and so even the fact of belonging to the same province, as creating a slight probability of community of origin - and again similarities of various kinds, as one sympathises more easily with one's like, and so persons naturally seek aid in distress from those of the same age, or sex, or rank, or profession. The duty of neighbourhood seems therefore only a particular application of the duty of general benevolence or humanity. And the claim of fellow-countrymen is of the same kind: that is, if they are taken as individuals; for one's relation to one's country as a whole is thought to be of a different kind, and to involve much more stringent obligations.

Still the duties of Patriotism are difficult to formulate. For the mere obedience to the laws of a country which morality requires from all its inhabitants seems to come under another head: and aliens are equally bound to this. And in the case of most social functions which men undertake, patriotism is at least not a prominent nor indispensable motive for they undertake them primarily for the sake of payment and having undertaken them, are bound by Justice and Good Faith to perform them adequately. However, if any of the functions of Government are unpaid, we consider that men exhibit patriotism in performing them: for though it is plausible to say that they get their payment in social distinction, still on reflection this view does not appear to be quite appropriate; since social distinction is intended to express feelings of honour and respect, and we cannot properly render these as part of a bargain, but only as a tribute paid to virtue or excellence of some kind. But how far any individual is bound to undertake such functions is not quite clear: and the question seems generally decided by considerations of expediency,---except in so far as duties of this kind devolve, legally or constitutionally, upon all the citizens in a free country, as is ordinarily the case to some extent. Among these the duty of fighting the national enemies is prominent in many countries: and even where this function has become a salaried and voluntarily adopted profession, it is often felt to be in a special sense the `service of one's country', and we think it at least desirable and best that it should be performed with feelings of patriotism: as we find it somewhat degrading and repulsive that a man should slaughter his fellow-men for hire. And in great crises of national existence the affection of Patriotism is naturally intensified: and even in ordinary times we praise a man who renders services to his country over and above the common duties of citizenship. But whether a citizen is at any time morally bound to more than certain legally or constitutionally determined duties, does not seem to be clear: nor, again, is there general agreement on the question whether by voluntary expatriation he can rightfully relieve himself of all moral obligations to the community in which he was born.

Nor, finally, does there seem to be any consensus as to what each man owes to his fellow-men, as such. The Utilitarian doctrine, as we have seen, is that each man ought to consider the happiness of any other as theoretically of equal importance with his own, and only of less importance practically, in so far as he is better able to realise the latter. And it seems to me difficult to say decidedly that this is not the principle of general Benevolence, as recognised by the common sense of mankind. But it must be admitted that there is also current a lower and narrower estimate of the services that we are held to be strictly bound to render to our fellow men generally. This lower view seems to recognise (l)---as was before noticed---a negative duty to abstain from causing pain or harm to any of our fellow-men, except in the way of deserved punishment; to which we may add, as an immediate corollary, the duty of making reparation for any harm that we may have done them: and (2) a positive duty to render, when occasion offers, such services as require either no sacrifice on our part, or at least one very much less in importance than the service rendered. Further, a general obligation of being `useful to society' by some kind of systematic work is vaguely recognised; rich persons who are manifest drones incur some degree of censure from the majority of thoughtful persons. Beyond this somewhat indefinite limit of Duty extends the Virtue of Benevolence without limit: for excess is not thought to be possible in doing good to others, nor in the disposition to do it, unless it leads us to neglect definite duties.

Under the notion of Benevolence as just defined, the minor rules of Gentleness, Politeness, Courtesy, etc. may be brought, in so far as they prescribe the expression of general goodwill and abstinence from anything that may cause pain to others in conversation and social demeanour. There is, however, an important part of Politeness which it may be well to notice and discuss separately; the duty, namely, of showing, marks of Reverence to those to whom they are properly due.

Reverence we may define as the feeling which accompanies the recognition of Superiority or Worth in others. It does not seem to be necessarily in itself benevolent, though often accompanied by some degree of love. But its ethical characteristics seem analogous to those of benevolent affection, in so far as, while it is not a feeling directly under the control of the will, we yet expect it under certain circumstances and morally dislike its absence, and perhaps commonly consider the expression of it to be sometimes a duty, even when the feeling itself is absent.

Still, as to this latter duty of expressing reverence, there seems to be great divergence of opinion. For the feeling seems to be naturally excited by all kinds of superiority,---not merely moral and intellectual excellences, but also superiorities of rank and position: and indeed in the common behaviour of men it is to the latter that it is more regularly and formally rendered. And yet, again, it is commonly said that Reverence is more properly due to the former, as being more real and intrinsic superiorities: and many think that to show any reverence to men of rank and position rather than to others is servile and degrading: and some even dislike the marks of respect which in most countries are exacted by official superiors from their subordinates, saying that obedience legally defined is all that is properly owed in this relation.

A more serious difficulty of a somewhat similar kind arises when we consider how far it is a duty to cultivate the affection of Loyalty: meaning by this term---which is used in various senses---the affection that is normally felt by a well-disposed servant or official subordinate towards a good master or official superior. On the one band it is widely thought that the duties of obedience which belong to these relations will be better performed if affection enters into the motive, no less than the duties of the family relations: but in the former case it seems to be a tenable view that the habits of orderliness and good faith-ungrudging obedience to law and ungrudging fulfilment of contract-will ordinarily suffice, without personal affection; and, on the other hand, a disposition to obey superiors, beyond the limits of their legal or contractual rights to issue commands, may easily be mischievous in its effects, if the superiors are ill-disposed. In the case of a wise and good superior it is, indeed, clearly advantageous that inferiors should be disposed to obey beyond these limits; but it is not therefore clear that this disposition is one which it should be made a duty to cultivate beyond the degree in which it results spontaneously from a sense of the superior's goodness and wisdom. Nor do I think that any decided enunciation of duty on this point can be extracted from Common Sense.

[ME, Benevolence, §4]
[ME, Benevolence, §6]