Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter III


§2. We may begin by replying to an objection which is frequently urged against Utilitarianism. How, it is asked, if the true ground of the moral goodness or badness of actions lies in their utility or the reverse, can we explain the broad distinction drawn by Common Sense between the moral and other parts of our nature? Why is the excellence of Virtue so strongly felt to be different in kind, not merely from the excellence of a machine, or a fertile field, but also from the physical beauties and aptitudes, the intellectual gifts and talents of human beings. I should answer that---as was argued in an earlier chapter (Book iii. chap. ii.)---qualities that are, in the strictest sense of the term, Virtuous, are always such as we conceive capable of being immediately realised by voluntary effort, at least to some extent; so that the prominent obstacle to virtuous action is absence of adequate motive. Hence we expect that the judgments of moral goodness or badness, passed either by the agent himself or by others, will---by the fresh motive which they supply on the side of virtue---have an immediate practical effect in causing actions to be at least externally virtuous: and the habitual consciousness of this will account for almost any degree of difference between moral sentiments and the pleasure and pain that we derive from the contemplation of either extra-human or non-voluntary utilities and inutilities. To this, however, it is replied, that among the tendencies to strictly voluntary actions there are many not commonly regarded as virtuous, which are yet not only useful but on the whole more useful than many virtues. ``The selfish instinct that leads men to accumulate confers ultimately more advantage on the world than the generous instinct that leads men to give … It is scarcely doubtful that a modest, diffident, and retiring nature, distrustful of its own abilities, and shrinking with humility from conflict, produces on the whole less benefit to the world than the self-assertion of an audacious and arrogant nature, which is impelled to every struggle, and develops every capacity. Gratitude has no doubt done much to soften and sweeten the intercourse of life, but the corresponding feeling of revenge was for centuries the one bulwark against social anarchy, and is even now one of the chief restraints to crime. On the great theatre of public life, especially in periods of great convulsions where passions are fiercely roused, it is neither the man of delicate scrupulosity and sincere impartiality, nor yet the single-minded religious enthusiast, incapable of dissimulation or procrastination, who confers most benefit on the world. It is much rather the astute statesman, earnest about his ends, but unscrupulous about his means, equally free from the trammels of conscience and from the blindness of zeal, who governs because he partly yields to the passions and the prejudices of his time. But … it has scarcely yet been contended that the delicate conscience which in these cases impairs utility constitutes vice.'' [1]

These objections are forcibly urged; but they appear to me not very difficult to answer, it being always borne in mind that the present argument does not aim. at proving an exact coincidence between Utilitarian inferences and the intuitions of Common Sense, but rather seeks to represent the latter as inchoately and imperfectly Utilitarian.

In the first place, we must carefully distinguish between the recognition of goodness in dispositions, and the recognition of rightness in conduct. An act that a Utilitarian must condemn as likely to do more harm than good may yet show a disposition or tendency that will on the whole produce more good than harm. This is eminently the case with scrupulously conscientious acts. However true it may be that unenlightened conscientiousness has impelled men to fanatical cruelty, mistaken asceticism, and other infelicific conduct, I suppose no Intuitionist would maintain that carefulness in conforming to accepted moral rules has not, on the whole, a tendency to promote happiness. It may be observed, however, that when we perceive the effects of a disposition generally felicific to be in any particular case adverse to happiness, we often apply to it, as so operating, some term of condemnation: thus we speak, in the case above noticed, of `over-scrupulousness' or `fanaticism'. But in so far as we perceive that the same disposition would generally produce good results, it is not inconsistent still to regard it, abstracting from the particular case, as a good element of character. Secondly, although, in the view of a Utilitarian, only the useful is praiseworthy, he is not bound to maintain that it is necessarily worthy of praise in proportion as it is useful. From a Utilitarian point of view, as has been before said, we must mean by calling a quality `deserving of praise', that it is expedient to praise it, with a view to its future production: accordingly, in distributing our praise of human qualities, on utilitarian principles, we have to consider primarily not the usefulness of the quality, but the usefulness of the praise: and it is obviously not expedient to encourage by praise qualities which are likely to be found in excess rather than in defect. Hence (e.g.) however necessary self-love or resentment may be to society, it is quite in harmony with Utilitarianism that they should not be recognised as virtues by Common Sense, in so far as it is reasonably thought that they will always be found operating with at least sufficient intensity. We find, however, that when self-love comes into conflict with impulses seen to be on the whole pernicious, it is praised as Prudence: and that when a man seems clearly deficient in resentment, he is censured for tameness: though as malevolent impulses are much more obviously productive of pain than pleasure, it is not unnatural that their occasional utility should be somewhat overlooked. The case of Humility and Diffidence may be treated in a somewhat similar way. As we saw, it is only inadvertently that Common Sense praises the tendency to underrate one's own powers: on reflection it is generally admitted that it cannot be good to be in error on this or any other point. But the desires of Superiority and Esteem are so strong in most men, that arrogance and self-assertion are both much commoner than the opposite defects, and at the same time are faults peculiarly disagreeable to others: so that humility gives us an agreeable surprise, and hence Common Sense is easily led to overlook the more latent and remote bad consequences of undue self-distrust.

We may observe further that the perplexity which we seemed to find in the Morality of Common Sense, as to the relation of moral excellence to moral effort, is satisfactorily explained and removed when we adopt a Utilitarian point of view: for on the one hand it is easy to see how certain acts---such as kind services---are likely to be more felicific when performed without effort, and from other motives than regard for duty: while on the other hand a person who in doing similar acts achieves a triumph of duty over strong seductive inclinations, exhibits thereby a character which we recognise as felicific in a more general way, as tending to a general performance of duty in all departments. So again, there is a simple and obvious utilitarian solution of another difficulty which I noticed, as to the choice between Subjective and Objective rightness in the exceptional case in which alone the two can be presented as alternatives,---i.e. when we are considering whether we shall influence another to act contrary to his conviction as to what is right. A utilitarian would decide the question by weighing the felicific consequences of the particular right act against the infelicific results to be apprehended hereafter from the moral deterioration of the person whose conscientious convictions were overborne by other motives: unless the former effects were very important he would reasonably regard the danger to character as the greater: but if the other's mistaken sense of duty threatened to cause a grave disaster, he would not hesitate to overbear it by any motives which it was in his power to apply. And in practice I think that the Common Sense of mankind would come to similar conclusions by more vague and semi-conscious reasoning of the same kind.

In order, however, to form a precise estimate of the extent to which Utilitarianism agrees or disagrees with Common Sense, it seems best to examine the more definite judgments of right and wrong in conduct, under the particular heads represented by our common notions of virtues and duties. I may begin by pointing out once more that so far as any adequately precise definitions of these notions are found to involve, implicitly or explicitly, the notion of `good' or of `right' supposed already determinate, they can afford no ground for opposing a Utilitarian interpretation of these fundamental conceptions. For example, we saw this to be the case with the chief of the intellectual excellences discussed in Book iii. chap. iii. Wisdom, as commonly conceived, is not exactly the faculty of choosing the right means to the end of universal happiness; rather, as we saw, its notion involves an uncritical synthesis of the different ends and principles that are distinguished and separately examined in the present treatise. But if its import is not distinctly Utilitarian, it is certainly not anything else as distinct from Utilitarian: if we can only define it as the faculty or habit of choosing the right or best means to the right or best end, for that very reason our definition leaves it quite open to us to give the notions `good' and `right' a Utilitarian import.

[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §1]
[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §2]