Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter XII


§1. In the first chapter of this third Book I was careful to point out that motives, as well as intentions, form part of the subject-matter of our common moral judgments: and indeed in our notion of `conscientiousness' the habit of reflecting on motives, and judging them to be good or bad, is a prominent element. It is necessary, therefore, in order to complete our examination of the Intuitional Method, to consider this comparison of motives, and ascertain how far it can be made systematic, and pursued to conclusions of scientific value. And this seems a convenient place for treating, of this part of the subject: since it has been maintained by an important school of English moralists that Desires and Affections rather than Acts are the proper subjects of the ethical judgment: and it is natural to fall back upon this view when systematic reflection on the morality of Common Sense has shown us the difficulty of obtaining a precise and satisfactory determination of rightness and wrongness in external conduct.

To avoid confusion, it should be observed that the term `motive' is commonly used in two ways. It is sometimes applied to those among the foreseen consequences of any act which the agent desired in willing: and sometimes to the desire, or conscious impulse itself. The two meanings are in a manner correspondent, as, where impulses are different, there must always be some sort of difference in their respective objects. But for our present purpose it is more convenient to take the latter meaning: as it is our own impulsive nature that we have practically to deal with, in the way of controlling, resisting, indulging the different impulses; and therefore it is the ethical value of these that we are primarily concerned to estimate: and we often find that two impulses, which would be placed very far apart in any psychological list, are directed towards an end materially identical, though regarded from a different point of view in each case. As (e.g.) both appetite and Rational self-love may impel a man to seek a particular sensual gratification; though in the latter case it is regarded under the general notion of pleasure, and as forming part of a sum called Happiness. In this chapter, then, I shall use the term Motive to denote the desires of particular results, believed to be attainable as consequences of our voluntary acts, by which desires we are stimulated to will those acts. [1]

The first point to notice in considering the ethical result of a comprehensive comparison of motives is, that the issue in any internal conflict is not usually thought to be between positively good and bad, but between better and less good, more or less estimable or elevated motives. The only kind of motive which (if any) we commonly judge to be intrinsically bad, apart from the circumstances under which it operates, is malevolent affection; that is, the desire, however aroused, to inflict pain or harm on some other sentient being. And reflection shows (as we saw in chap. viii. of this Book) that Common Sense does not pronounce even this kind of impulse absolutely bad: since we commonly recognise the existence of `legitimate resentment' and `righteous indignation'; and though moralists try to distinguish between anger directed `against the act' and `against the agent', and between the impulse to inflict pain and the desire of the antipathetic pleasure that the agent will reap from this infliction, it may be fairly doubted whether it is within the capacity of ordinary human nature to maintain these distinctions in practice. At any rate there is no other motive except deliberate malevolence which Common Sense condemns as absolutely bad. The other motives that are commonly spoken of in `dyslogistic' terms seem to be most properly called (in Bentham's language) 'Seductive' rather than bad. That is, they prompt to forbidden conduct with conspicuous force and frequency: but when we consider them carefully we find that there are certain limits, however narrow, within which their operation is legitimate.

The question, then, is how far the intuitive knowledge that our common judgments seem to imply of the relative goodness of different kinds of motives is found on reflection to satisfy the conditions laid down in the preceding chapter. I have before argued that it is incorrect to regard this comparison of motives as the normal form of our common moral judgments, nor do I see any ground for holding it to be the original form. I think that in the normal development of man's moral consciousness, both in the individual and in the race, moral judgments are first passed on outward acts, and that motives do not come to be definitely considered till later; just as external perception of physical objects precedes introspection. At the same time, in my view, it does not therefore follow that the comparison of motives is not the final and most perfect form of the moral judgment. It might approve itself as such by the systematic clearness and mutual consistency of the results to which it led, when pursued by different thinkers independently: and by its freedom from the puzzles and difficulties to which other developments of the Intuitional Method seem to be exposed.

It appears, however, on examination that, on the one hand, many (if not all) of the difficulties which have emerged in the preceding discussion of the commonly received principles of conduct are reproduced in a different form when we try to arrange Motives in order of excellence: and on the other hand, such a construction presents difficulties peculiar to itself, and the attempt to solve these exhibits greater and more fundamental differences among Intuitive moralists, as regards Rank of Motive, than we found to exist as regards Rightness of outward acts.

[ME, Review of the Morality of Common Sense, §9]
[ME, Motives or Springs of Action Considered as Subjects of Moral Judgment, §2]