Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter XII


§3. But even if we put out of sight the Moral sentiments and Self-love, it is still scarcely possible to frame a scale of motives arranged in order of merit, for which we could claim anything like a clear consent, even of cultivated and thoughtful persons. On one or two points, indeed, we seem to be generally agreed; e.g. that the bodily appetites are inferior to the benevolent affections and the intellectual desires; and perhaps that impulses tending primarily to the well-being of the individual are lower in rank than those which we class as extra-regarding or disinterested. But beyond a few vague statements of this kind, it is very difficult to proceed. For example, when we compare personal affections with the love of knowledge or of beauty, or the passion for the ideal in any form, much doubt and divergence of opinion become manifest. Indeed, we should hardly agree on the relative rank of the benevolent affections taken by themselves; for some would prefer the more intense, though narrower, while others would place the calmer and wider feelings in the highest rank. Or again, since Love, as we saw, is a complex emotion, and commonly includes, besides the desire of the good or happiness of the beloved, a desire for union or intimacy of some kind; some would consider an affection more elevated in proportion as the former element predominated, while others would regard the latter as at least equally essential to the highest kind of affection.

Again, we may notice the love of Fame as an important and widely operative motive, which would be ranked very differently by different persons: for some would place the former ``spur that the clear spirit doth raise'' among the most elevated impulses after the moral sentiments; while others think it degrading to depend for one's happiness on the breath of popular favour.

Further, the more we contemplate the actual promptings that precede any volition, the more we seem to find complexity of motive the rule rather than the exception, at least in the case of educated persons: and from this composition of impulses there results a fundamental perplexity as to the principles on which our decision is to be made, even supposing that we have a clear view of the relative worth of the elementary impulses. For the compound will generally contain nobler and baser elements, and we can hardly get rid of the latter; since---as I have before said---though we may frequently suppress and expel a motive by firmly resisting it, it does not seem possible to exclude it if we do the act to which it prompts. Suppose, then, that we are impelled in one direction by a combination of high and low motives, and in another by an impulse that ranks between the two in the scale, how shall we decide which course to follow? Such a case is by no means uncommon: e.g. an injured man may be moved by an impulse of pity to spare his injurer, while a regard for justice and a desire of revenge combined impel him to inflict punishment. Or, again, a Jew of liberal views might be restrained from eating pork by a desire not to shock the feelings of his friends, and might be moved to eat it by the desire to vindicate true religious liberty combined with a liking for pork. How are we to deal with such a case as this? For it will hardly be suggested that we should estimate the relative proportions of the different motives and decide accordingly;---qualitative analysis of our motives is to some extent possible to us, but the quantitative analysis that this would require is not in our power.

But even apart from this difficulty arising from complexity of motives, I think it impossible to assign a definite and constant ethical value to each different kind of motive, without reference to the particular circumstances under which it has arisen, the extent of indulgence that it demands, and the consequences to which this indulgence would lead in any particular case. I may conveniently illustrate this by reference to the table, drawn up by Dr. Martineau, of springs of action arranged in order of merit.

  1. Secondary Passions:---Censoriousness, Vindictiveness, Suspiciousness.
  2. Secondary Organic Propensions:---Love of Ease and Sensual Pleasure.
  3. Primary Organic Propensions:---Appetites.
  4. Primary Animal Propension:---Spontaneous Activity (unselective).
  5. Love of Gain (reflective derivative from Appetite).
  6. Secondary Affections (sentimental indulgence of sympathetic feelings).
  7. Primary Passions:---Antipathy, Fear, Resentment.
  8. Causal energy:---Love of Power, or Ambition; Love of Liberty.
  9. Secondary Sentiments:---Love of Culture.
  10. Primary Sentiments of Wonder and Admiration.
  11. Primary Affections, Parental and Social; with (approximately) Generosity and Gratitude.
  12. Primary Affection of Compassion.
  13. Primary Sentiment of Reverence.

This scale seems to me open to much criticism, both from a psychological and from an ethical point of view: [3] but, granting that it corresponds broadly to the judgments that men commonly pass as to the different elevation of different motives, it seems to me in the highest degree paradoxical to lay down that each class of motives is always to be preferred to the class below it, without regard to circumstances and consequences. So far as it is true that ``the conscience says to every one, `Do not eat till you are hungry and stop when you are hungry no more''', it is not, I venture to think, because a ``regulative right is clearly vested in primary instinctive needs, relatively to their secondaries'', but because experience has shown that to seek the gratification of the palate apart from the satisfaction of hunger is generally dangerous to physical well-being; and it is in view of this danger that the conscience operates. If we condemn ``a ship captain'', who, ``caught in a fog off a lee shore, neglects, through indolence and love of ease, to slacken speed and take cautious soundings and open his steam-whistle'', it is not because we intuitively discern Fear to be a higher motive than Love of Ease, but because the consequences disregarded are judged to be indefinitely more important than the gratification obtained: if we took a case in which fear was not similarly sustained by prudence, our judgment would certainly be different.

The view of Common Sense appears rather to be that most natural impulses have their proper spheres, within which they should be normally operative, and therefore the question whether in any case a higher motive should yield to a lower one cannot be answered decisively in the general way in which Dr. Martineau answers it: the answer must depend on the particular conditions and circumstances of the conflict. We recognise it as possible that a motive which we commonly rank as higher may wrongly intrude into the proper sphere of one which we rank as lower, just as the lower is liable to encroach on the higher; only since there is very much less danger of the former intrusion, it naturally falls into the background in ethical discussions and exhortations that have a practical aim. The matter is complicated by the further consideration that as the character of a moral agent becomes better, the motives that we rank as ``higher'' tend to be developed, so that their normal sphere of operation is enlarged at the expense of the lower. Hence there are two distinct aims in moral regulation and culture, so far as they relate to motives: (1) to keep the ``lower'' motive within the limits within which its operation is considered to be legitimate and good on the whole, so long as we cannot substitute for it the equally effective operation of a higher motive and at the same time (2) to effect this substitution of ``higher'' for ``lower'' gradually, as far as can be done without danger, up to a limit which we cannot definitely fix, but which we certainly conceive, for the most part, as falling short of complete exclusion of the lower motive.

I may illustrate by reference to the passion of resentment of which I before spoke. The view of reflective common sense is, I think, that the malevolent impulse so designated, as long as it is strictly limited to resentment against wrong and operates in aid of justice, has a legitimate sphere of action in the social life of human beings as actually constituted: that, indeed, its suppression would be gravely mischievous, unless we could at the same time intensify the ordinary man's regard for justice or for social well-being so that the total strength of motives prompting to the punishment of crime should not be diminished. It is, no doubt, ``to be wished'', as Butler says, that men would repress wrong from these higher motives rather than from passionate resentment; but we cannot hope to effect this change in human beings generally except by a slow and gradual process of elevation of character: therefore supposing a conflict between ``Compassion'', which is highest but one in Dr. Martineau's scale, and ''Resentment'', which he places about the middle, it is by no means to be laid down as a general rule that compassion ought to prevail. We ought rather---with Butler---to regard resentment as a salutary ``balance to the weakness of pity'', which would be liable to prevent the execution of justice if resentment were excluded.

Or we might similarly take the impulse which comes lowest (among those not condemned altogether) in Dr. Martineau's scale---the ``Love of Ease and Sensual Pleasure''. No doubt this impulse, or group of impulses, is continually leading men to shirk or scamp their strict duty, or to fall in some less definite way below their own ideal of conduct; hence the attitude habitually maintained towards it by preachers and practical moralists is that of repression. Still, common sense surely recognises that there are cases in which even this impulse ought to prevail over impulses ranked above it in Dr. Martineau's scale; we often find men prompted---say by ``love of gain''---to shorten unduly their hours of recreation; and in the case of a conflict of motives under such circumstances we should judge it best that victory should remain on the side of the " love of ease and pleasure'', and that the encroachment of ``love of gain'' should be repelled.

I do not, however, think that in either of these instances the conflict of motives would remain such as I have just described: I think that though the struggle might begin as a duel between resentment and compassion, or between love of ease and love of gain, it would not be fought out in the lists so drawn; since higher motives would inevitably be called in as the conflict went on, regard for justice and social well-being on the side of resentment, regard for health and ultimate efficiency for work on the side of love of ease; and it would be the intervention of these higher motives that would decide the struggle, so far as it was decided rightly and as we should approve. This certainly is what would happen in my own case, if the supposed conflict were at all serious and its decision deliberate; and this constitutes my final reason for holding that such a scale as Dr. Martineau has drawn up, of motives arranged according to their moral rank, can never have more than a very subordinate ethical importance. I admit that it may serve to indicate in a rough and general way the kinds of desires which it is ordinarily best to encourage and indulge, in comparison with other kinds which are ordinarily likely to compete and collide with them; and we might thus settle summarily some of the comparatively trifling conflicts of motive which the varying and complex play of needs, habits, interests, and their accompanying emotions, continually stirs in our daily life. But if a serious question of conduct is raised, I cannot conceive myself deciding it morally by any comparison of motives below the highest: it seems to me that the question must inevitably be carried up for decision into the court of whatever motive we regard as supremely regulative: so that the comparison ultimately decisive would be not between the lower motives primarily conflicting, but between the effects of the different lines of conduct to which these lower motives respectively prompt, considered in relation to whatever we regard as the ultimate end or ends of reasonable action. And this, I conceive, will be the course naturally taken by the moral reflection not only of utilitarians, but of all who follow Butler in regarding our passions and propensions as forming naturally a ``system or constitution'', in which the ends of lower impulses are subordinate as means to the ends of certain governing motives, or are comprehended as parts in these larger ends.

[ME, Motives or Springs of Action Considered as Subjects of Moral Judgment, §2]
[ME, Philosophical Intuitionism, §1]