Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter XIII


§4. 1 should, however, rely less confidently on the conclusions set forth in the preceding section, if they did not appear to me to be in substantial agreement---in spite of superficial differences---with the doctrines of those moralists who have been most in earnest in seeking among commonly received moral rules for genuine intuitions of the Practical Reason. I have already pointed out that in the history of English Ethics the earlier intuitional school show, in this respect, a turn of thought on the whole more philosophical than that which the reaction against Hume rendered prevalent. Among the writers of this school there is no one who shows more earnestness in the effort to penetrate to really self-evident principles than Clarke. Accordingly, I find that Clarke lays down, in respect of our behaviour towards our fellow-men, two fundamental ``rules of righteousness'': the first of which he terms Equity, and the second Love or Benevolence. The Rule of Equity he states thus : ``Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable that another should do for me: that by the same judgment I declare reasonable or unreasonable that I should in the like case do for him''[4]---which is of course, the `Golden Rule' precisely stated. The obligation to ``Universal Love or Benevolence'' he exhibits as follows:---

``If there be a natural and necessary difference between Good and Evil: and that which is Good is fit and reasonable, and that which is Evil is unreasonable, to be done: arid that which is the Greatest Good is always the most fit and reasonable to be chosen: then … every rational creature ought in its sphere and station, according to its respective powers and faculties, to do all the Good it can to its fellow-creatures: to which end, universal Love and Benevolence is plainly the most certain, direct, and effectual means.'' [5]

Here the mere statement that a rational agent is bound to aim at universal good is open to the charge of tautology, since Clarke defines `Good' as `that which is fit and reasonable to be done'. But Clarke obviously holds that each individual `rational creature' is capable of receiving good in a greater or less degree, such good being an integrant part of universal good. This indeed is implied in the common notion, which he uses, of `doing Good to one's fellow-creatures', or, as he otherwise expresses it, `promoting their welfare and happiness.' And thus his principle is implicitly what was stated above, that the good or welfare of any one individual must as such be an object of rational aim to any other reasonable individual no less than his own similar good or welfare.

(It should be observed, however, that the proposition that Universal Benevolence is the right means to the attainment of universal good, is not quite self-evident; since the end may not always be best attained by directly aiming at it. Thus Rational Benevolence, like Rational Self-Love, may be self-limiting; may direct its own partial suppression in favour of other impulses.)

Among later moralists, Kant is especially noted for his rigour in separating the purely rational element of the moral code: and his ethical view also appears to me to coincide to a considerable extent, if not completely, with that set forth in the preceding section. I have already noticed that his fundamental principle of duty is the `formal' rule of ``acting on a maxim that one can will to be law universal''; which, duly restricted, is an immediate practical corollary from the principle that I first noticed in the preceding section. And we find that when he comes to consider the ends at which virtuous action is aimed, the only really ultimate end which he lays down is the object of Rational Benevolence as commonly conceived---the happiness of other men.[7] He regards it as evident a priori that each man as a rational agent is bound to aim at the happiness of other men: indeed, in his view, it can only be stated as a duty for me to seek my own happiness so far as I consider it as a part of the happiness of mankind in general. I disagree with the negative side of this statement, as I hold with Butler that ``one's own happiness is a manifest obligation'' independently of one's relation to other men; but, regarded on its positive side, Kant's conclusion appears to agree to a great extent with the view of the duty of Rational Benevolence that I have given:---though I am not altogether able to assent to the arguments by which Kant arrives at his conclusion.

[ME, Philosophical Intuitionism, §3]
[ME, Philosophical Intuitionism, §5]