Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VIII


§1. When we proceed to inquire how far the minor social duties and virtues recognised by Common Sense appear on examination to be anything more than special applications of the Benevolence---general or particular---discussed in chap. iv., the department of duty which most prominently claims our attention, is that which deals with the existence, and determines the legitimacy, of feelings antithetical to the benevolent,

For it seems that malevolent affections are as natural to man as the benevolent: not indeed in the same sense---for man tends to have normally some kindly feeling for any fellow-man, when there is no special cause operating to make him love or hate, (though this tendency is obscured in the lower stages of social development by the habitual hostility between strange tribes and races); but still such special causes of malevolent feeling continually occur, and, in the main, exemplify a psychological law analogous to that by which the growth of benevolent feelings is explained. For just as we are apt to love those who are the cause of pleasure to us whether by voluntary benefits or otherwise: so by strict analogy we naturally dislike those who have done us harm, either consciously from malevolence or mere selfishness, or even unconsciously, as when another man is an obstacle to, our attainment of a much-desired end. Thus we naturally feel ill-will to a rival who deprives us of an object of competition: and so in persons in who in the desire of superiority is strong, a certain dislike of any one who is more successful or prosperous than themselves is easily aroused: and this envy, however repulsive to our moral sense, seems as natural as any other malevolent emotion. And it is to be observed that each of the elements into which we can analyse malevolent affection finds its exact counterpart in the analysis of the benevolent: as the former includes a dislike of the presence of its object and a desire to inflict pain on it, and also a capacity of deriving pleasure from the pain thus inflicted.

If now we ask how far indulgence of malevolent emotions is right and proper, the answer of Common Sense is not easy to formulate. For some would say broadly that they ought to be repressed altogether or as far as possible. And no doubt we blame all envy (though sometimes to exclude it altogether requires a magnanimity which we praise): and we regard as virtues or natural excellences the good-humour which prevents one from feeling even pain to a material extent---not to say resentment---from trifling annoyances inflicted by others, the meekness which does not resent even graver injuries, the mildness and gentleness which refrain from retaliating them, and the placability which accords forgiveness rapidly and easily. We are even accustomed to praise the mercy which spares even deserved punishment: because though we never exactly disapprove of the infliction of deserved punishment, and hold it to be generally a duty of government-and in certain cases of private persons-to inflict it, we do not think that this duty admits of no exceptions; we think that in exceptional cases considerations not strictly relevant to the question of justice may be properly regarded as reasons for remitting punishment, and we admire the sympathetic nature that eagerly avails itself of these legitimate occasions for remission.

On the other hand Common Sense admits instinctive resentment for wrong to be legitimate and proper: and even a more sustained and deliberate malevolence is commonly approved as virtuous indignation. The problem, then, is how to reconcile these diverse approvals. Even as regards external duty, there is some difficulty; since, though it is clear to common sense that in a well-ordered society punishment of adults ought generally to be inflicted by government, and that a private individual wronged ought not to ``take the law into his own hands'',---still there are in all societies injuries to individuals which the law does not punish at all or not adequately, and for which effective requital is often possible without transgressing the limits of legality; and there seems to be no clear agreement as to the right manner of dealing with these. For the Christian code is widely thought to prescribe a complete and absolute forgiveness of such offences, and many Christians have endeavoured to carry out this rule by dismissing the offences as far as possible from their minds, or at least allowing the memory of them to have no effect on their outward conduct. Few, however, would deny that, so far as a wrong done to me gives ground for expecting future mischief from the offender to myself or to others, I am bound as a rational being to take due precautions against this future mischief; and probably most would admit that such precautions for the future, in the case we are considering, may include the infliction of punishment for the past, where impunity would give a dangerous temptation to a repetition of the unpunished offence. If we ask, therefore, how far forgiveness is practically possible, the answer seems admittedly to depend on two considerations: (1) how far the punishment to which resentment prompts is really required in the interests of society, and (2) how far, if so, it will be adequately inflicted if the person wronged refrains from inflicting it. But, obviously, so far as we allow the question to be settled by these considerations we are introducing a method difficult to distinguish from the Utilitarian.

And we seem led to a similar result in discussing the legitimacy of malevolent feeling. Here again we find much disagreement among thoughtful persons: for many would say that though the emotion of anger is legitimate, it ought to be directed always against wrong acts as such, and not against the agent: for even where the anger may legitimately prompt us to punish him, it ought never to overcome our kindly feeling towards him. And certainly if this state of mind is possible, it seems the simplest reconciliation of the general maxim of Benevolence with the admitted duty of inflicting punishment. On the other hand, it is urged, with some reason, that to retain genuine kindly feeling towards a man, while we are gratifying strong impulse of aversion to his acts by inflicting pain on him, requires a subtle complexity of emotion too far out of the reach of ordinary men to be prescribed as a duty: and that we must allow as right and proper a temporary suspension of benevolence towards wrong-doers until they have been punished. Some, again, make a distinction between Instinctive and Deliberate Resentment: saying that the former is legitimate in so far as it is required for the self-defence of individuals and the repression of mutual violence, but that deliberate resentment is not similarly needed, for if we act deliberately we can act from a better motive. Others, however, think that a deliberate and sustained desire to punish wrong-doers is required in the interests of society, since the mere desire to realise Justice will not practically be strong enough to repress offences: and that it is as serious a mistake to attempt to substitute the desire of Justice for natural resentment as it would be to substitute prudence for natural appetite in eating and drinking, or mere dutifulness for filial affection.

Again, a distinction may be taken between the impulse to inflict pain and the desire of the antipathetic pleasure which the agent will reap from this infliction; so that, while we approve the former under certain circumstances, we may still regard the latter as altogether inadmissible. It would seem, however, that a man under the influence of a strong passion of resentment can hardly exclude from his mind altogether an anticipation of the pleasure that he will feel when the passion is gratified; and if so, he can hardly exclude altogether the desire of this gratification. If, therefore, it is important for the well-being of society that men should derive hearty satisfaction from the punishment of a nefarious criminal, it is perhaps going too far to prohibit absolutely the desire of this satisfaction; though we may say that a man ought not to cherish this desire, and gloat over the anticipated pleasure.

On the whole we may perhaps sum up by saying that a superficial view of the matter naturally leads us to condemn sweepingly all malevolent feelings and the acts to which they prompt, as contrary to the general duty of benevolence: but that the common sense of reflective persons recognises the necessity of relaxing this rule in the interests of society: only it is not clear as to the limits or principles of this relaxation, though inclined to let it be determined by considerations of expediency,

[ME, Veracity, §3]
[ME, Other Social Duties and Virtues, §2]