Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter III


§3. Let us then examine first the group of virtues and duties discussed in Book iii. chap. iv., under the head of Benevolence. As regards the general conception of the duty, there is, I think, no divergence that we need consider between the Intuitional and Utilitarian systems. For though Benevolence would perhaps be more commonly defined as a disposition to promote the Good of one's fellow-creatures, rather than their Happiness (as definitely understood by Utilitarians); still, as the chief element in the common notion of good (besides happiness) is moral good or Virtue, if we can show that the other virtues are---speaking broadly---all qualities conducive to the happiness of the agent himself or of others, it is evident that Benevolence, whether it prompts us to promote the virtue of others or their happiness, will aim directly or indirectly at the Utilitarian end.[2]

Nor, further, does the comprehensive range which Utilitarians give to Benevolence, in stating as their ultimate end the greatest happiness of all sentient beings, seem to be really opposed to Common Sense; for in so far as certain Intuitional moralists restrict the scope of the direct duty of Benevolence to human beings, and regard our duties to brute animals as merely indirect and derived ``from the duty of Self-culture'', they rather than their Utilitarian opponents appear paradoxical. And if, in laying down that each agent is to consider all other happiness as equally important with his own, Utilitarianism seems to go beyond the standard of duty commonly prescribed under the head of Benevolence, it yet call scarcely be said to conflict with Common Sense on this point. For the practical application of this theoretical impartiality of Utilitarianism is limited by several important considerations. In the first place, generally speaking, each man is better able to provide for his own happiness than for that of other persons, from his more intimate knowledge of his own desires and needs, and his greater opportunities of gratifying them. And besides, it is under the stimulus of self-interest that the active energies of most men are most easily and thoroughly drawn out: and if this were removed, general happiness would be diminished by a serious loss of those means of happiness which are obtained by labour; and also, to some extent, by the diminution of the labour itself. For these reasons it would not under actual circumstances promote the universal happiness if each man were to concern himself with the happiness of others as much as with his own. While if I consider the duty abstractly and ideally, even Common Sense morality seems to bid me ``love my neighbour as myself''.

It might indeed be plausibly objected, on the other hand, that under the notions of Generosity, Self-sacrifice, etc., Common Sense praises (though it does not prescribe as obligatory) a suppression of egoism beyond what Utilitarianism approves: for we perhaps admire as virtuous a man who gives up his own happiness for another's sake, even when the happiness that he confers is clearly less than that which he resigns, so that there is a diminution of happiness on the whole. But (1) it seems very doubtful whether we do altogether approve such conduct when the disproportion between the sacrifice and the benefit is obvious and striking: and (2) a spectator is often unable to judge whether happiness is lost on the whole, as (a) he cannot tell how far he who makes the sacrifice is compensated by sympathetic and moral pleasure, and (b) the remoter felicific consequences flowing from the moral effects of such a sacrifice on the agent and on others have to be taken into account: while (3) even if there be a loss in the particular case, still our admiration of self-sacrifice will admit of a certain Utilitarian justification, because such conduct shows a disposition far above the average in its general tendency to promote happiness, and it is perhaps this disposition that we admire rather than the particular act.

It has been said, however, that the special claims and duties belonging to special relations, by which each man is connected with a few out of the whole number of human beings, are expressly ignored by the rigid impartiality of the Utilitarian formula: and hence that, though Utilitarianism and Common Sense may agree in the proposition that all right action is conducive to the happiness of some one or other, and so far beneficent, still they are irreconcileably divergent on the radical question of the distribution of beneficence.

Here, however, it seems that even fair-minded opponents have scarcely understood the Utilitarian position. They have attacked Bentham's well-known formula, ``every man to count for one, nobody for more than one'', on the ground that the general happiness will be best attained by inequality in the distribution of each one's services. But so far as it is clear that it will be best attained in this way, Utilitarianism will necessarily prescribe this way of aiming at it; and Bentham's dictum must be understood merely as making the conception of the ultimate end precise---laying down that one person's happiness is to be counted for as much as another's (supposed equal in degree) as an element of the general happiness---not as directly prescribing the rules of conduct by which this end will be best attained. And the reasons why it is, generally speaking, conducive to the general happiness that each individual should distribute his beneficence in the channels marked out by commonly recognised ties and claims, are tolerably obvious.

For first, in the chief relations discussed in chap. iv. of Book iii.---the domestic, and those constituted by consanguinity, friendship, previous kindnesses, and special needs,---the services which Common Sense prescribes as duties are commonly prompted by natural affection, while at the same time they tend to develop and sustain such affection. Now the subsistence of benevolent affections among human beings is itself an important means to the Utilitarian end, because (as Shaftesbury and his followers forcibly urged) the most intense and highly valued of our pleasures are derived from such affections; for both the emotion itself is highly pleasurable, and it imparts this quality to the activities which it prompts and sustains, and the happiness thus produced is continually enhanced by the sympathetic echo of the pleasures conferred on others. And again, where genuine affection subsists, the practical objections to spontaneous beneficence, which were before noticed, are much diminished in force. For such affection tends to be reciprocated, and the kindnesses which are its outcome and expression commonly win a requital of affection: and in so far as this is the case, they have less tendency to weaken the springs of activity in the person benefited; and may even strengthen them by exciting other sources of energy than the egoistic---personal affection, and gratitude, and the desire to deserve love, and the desire to imitate beneficence. And hence it has been often observed that the injurious effects of almsgiving are at least much diminished if the alms are bestowed with unaffected sympathy and kindliness, and in such a way as to elicit a genuine response of gratitude. And further, the beneficence that springs from affection is less likely to be frustrated from defect of knowledge: for not only are we powerfully stimulated to study the real conditions of the happiness of those whom we love, but also such study is rendered more effective from the sympathy which naturally accompanies affection.

On these grounds the Utilitarian will evidently approve of the cultivation of affection and the performance of affectionate services. It may be said, however, that what we ought to approve is not so much affection for special individuals, but rather a feeling more universal in its scope-charity, philanthropy, or (as it has been called) the `Enthusiasm of Humanity'. And certainly all special affections tend occasionally to come into conflict with the principle of promoting the general happiness: and Utilitarianism must therefore prescribe such a culture of the feelings as will, so far as possible, counteract this tendency. But it seems that most persons are only capable of strong affections towards a few human beings in certain close relations, especially the domestic: and that if these were suppressed, what they would feel towards their fellow-creatures generally would be, as Aristotle says, ``but a watery kindness'' and a very feeble counterpoise to self-love: so that such specialised affections as the present organisation of society normally produces afford the best means of developing in most persons a more extended benevolence, to the degree to which they are capable of feeling it. Besides, each person is for the most part, from limitation either of power or knowledge, not in a position to do much good to more than a very small number of persons; it therefore seems, on this ground alone, desirable that his chief benevolent impulses should be correspondingly limited.

And this leads us to consider, secondly, the reasons why, affection apart, it is conducive to the general happiness that special claims to services should be commonly recognised as attaching to special relations; so as to modify that impartiality in the distribution of beneficence which Utilitarianism prima facie inculcates. For clearness' sake it seems best to take this argument separately, though it cannot easily be divided from the former one, because the services in question are often such as cannot so well be rendered without affection. In such cases, as we saw, Common Sense regards the affection itself as a duty, in so far as it is capable of being cultivated: but still prescribes the performance of the services even if the affection be unhappily absent. Indeed we may properly consider the services to which we are commonly prompted by the domestic affections, and also those to which we are moved by gratitude and pity, as an integral part of the system of mutual aid by which the normal life and happiness of society is maintained, under existing circumstances; being an indispensable supplement to the still more essential services which are definitely prescribed by Law, or rendered on commercial terms as a part of an express bargain. As political economists have explained, the means of happiness are immensely increased by that complex system of co-operation which has been gradually organised among civilised men: and while it is thought that under such a system it will be generally best on the whole to let each individual exchange such services as he is disposed to render for such return as he can obtain for them by free contract, still there are many large exceptions to this general principle. Of these the most important is constituted by the case of children. It is necessary for the well-being of mankind that in each generation children should be produced in adequate numbers, neither too many nor too few; and that, as they cannot be left to provide for themselves, they should be adequately nourished and protected during, the period of infancy; and further, that they should be carefully trained in good habits, intellectual, moral, and physical: and it is commonly believed that the best or even the only known means of attaining these ends in even a tolerable degree is afforded by the existing institution of the Family, resting as it does on a basis of legal and moral rules combined. For Law fixes a minimum of mutual services and draws the broad outlines of behaviour for the different members of the family, imposing on the parents lifelong union and complete mutual fidelity and the duty of providing for their children the necessaries of life up to a certain age; in return for which it gives them the control of their children for the same period, and sometimes lays on the latter the burden of supporting their parents when aged and destitute: so that Morality, in inculcating a completer harmony of interests and an ampler interchange of kindnesses, is merely filling in the outlines drawn by Law. We found, however, in attempting to formulate the different domestic duties as recognised by Common Sense, that there seemed to be in most cases a large vague margin with respect to which general agreement could not be affirmed, and which, in fact, forms an arena for continual disputes. But we have now to observe that it is just this margin which reveals most clearly the latent Utilitarianism of common moral opinion: for when the question is once raised as to the precise mutual duties (e.g.) of husbands and wives, or of parents and children, each disputant commonly supports his view by a forecast of the effects on human happiness to be expected from the general establishment of any proposed rule; this seems to be the standard to which the matter is, by common consent, referred.

Similarly the claim to services that arises out of special need (which natural sympathy moves us to recognise) may obviously be rested on an utilitarian basis: indeed the proper fulfilment of this duty seems so important to the well-being of society, that it has in modern civilised communities generally been brought to some extent within the sphere of Governmental action. We noticed that the main utilitarian reason why it is not right for every rich man to distribute his superfluous wealth among the poor, is that the happiness of all is on the whole most promoted by maintaining in adults generally (except married women), the expectation that each will be thrown on his own resources for the supply of his own wants. But if I am made aware that, owing to a sudden calamity that could not have been foreseen, another's resources are manifestly inadequate to protect him from pain or serious discomfort, the case is altered; my theoretical obligation to consider his happiness as much as my own becomes at once practical; and I am bound to make as much effort to relieve him as will not entail a greater loss of happiness to myself or others. If, however, the calamity is one which might have been foreseen and averted by proper care, my duty becomes more doubtful: for then by relieving him I seem to be in danger of encouraging improvidence in others. In such a case a Utilitarian has to weigh this indirect evil against the direct good of removing pain and distress: and it is now more and more generally recognised that the question of providing for the destitute has to be treated as a utilitarian problem of which these are the elements,---whether we are considering the minimum that should be secured to them by law, or the proper supplementary action of private charity.

Poverty, however, is not the only case in which it is conducive to the general happiness that one man should render unbought services to another. In any condition or calling a man may find himself unable to ward off some evil, or to realise some legitimate or worthy end, without assistance of such kind as he cannot purchase on the ordinary commercial terms;---assistance which, on the one hand, will have no bad effect on the receiver, from the exceptional nature of the emergency, while at the same time it may not be burdensome to the giver. Here, again, some jurists have thought that where the service to be rendered is great, and the burden of rendering it very slight, it might properly be made matter of legal obligation: so that (e.g.) if I could save a man from drowning by merely holding out a hand, I should be legally punishable if I omitted the act. But, however this may be, the moral rule condemning the refusal of aid in such emergencies is obviously conducive to the general happiness.

Further, besides these---so to say---accidentally unbought services, there are some for which there is normally no market-price; such as counsel and assistance in the intimate perplexities of life, which one is only willing to receive from genuine friends. It much promotes the general happiness that such services should be generally rendered. On this ground, as well as through the emotional pleasures which directly spring from it, we perceive Friendship to be an important means to the Utilitarian end. At the same time we feel that the charm of Friendship is lost if the flow of emotion is not spontaneous and unforced. The combination of these two views seems to be exactly represented by the sympathy that is not quite admiration with which Common Sense regards all close and strong affections; and the regret that is not quite disapproval with which it contemplates their decay.

In all cases where it is conducive to the general happiness that unbought services should be rendered, Gratitude (if we mean by this a settled disposition to repay the benefit in whatever way one can on a fitting opportunity) is enjoined by Utilitarianism no less than by Common Sense; for experience would lead us to expect that no kind of onerous services will be adequately rendered unless there is a general disposition to requite them. In fact we may say that a general understanding that all services which it is expedient that A should render to B will be in some way repaid by B, is a natural supplement of the more definite contracts by which the main part of the great social interchange of services is arranged. Indeed the one kind of requital merges in the other, and no sharp line can be drawn between the two: we cannot always say distinctly whether the requital of a benefit is a pure act of gratitude or the fulfilment of a tacit understanding. There is, however, a certain difficulty in this view of gratitude as analogous to the fulfilment of a bargain. For it may be said that of the services peculiar to friendship disinterestedness is an indispensable characteristic; and that in all cases benefits conferred without expectation of reward have a peculiar excellence, and are indeed peculiarly adapted to arouse gratitude; but if they are conferred in expectation of such gratitude, they lose this excellence; and yet, again, it would be very difficult to treat as a friend one from whom gratitude was not expected. This seems, at first sight, an inextricable entanglement: but here, as in other cases, an apparent ethical contradiction is found to reduce itself to a psychological complexity. For most of our actions are done from several different motives, either coexisting or succeeding one another in rapid alternation: thus a man may have a perfectly disinterested desire to benefit another, and one which might possibly prevail over all conflicting motives if all hope of requital were cut off, and yet it may be well that this generous impulse should be sustained by a vague trust that requital will not be withheld. And in fact the apparent puzzle really affords another illustration of the latent Utilitarianism of Common Sense. For, on the one hand, Utilitarianism prescribes that we should render services whenever it is conducive to the general happiness to do so, which may often be the case without taking into account the gain to oneself which would result from their requital: and on the other hand, since we may infer from the actual selfishness of average men that such services would not be adequately rendered without expectation of requital, it is also conducive to the general happiness that men should recognise a moral obligation to repay them.

We have discussed only the most conspicuous of the duties of affection: but it is probably obvious that similar reasonings would apply in the case of the others.

In all such cases there are three distinct lines of argument which tend to show that the commonly received view of special claims and duties arising out of special relations, though prima facie opposed to the impartial universality of the Utilitarian principle, is really maintained by a well-considered application of that principle. First, morality is here in a manner protecting the normal channels and courses of natural benevolent affections; and the development of such affections is of the highest importance to human happiness, both as a direct source of pleasure, and as an indispensable preparation for a more enlarged ``altruism''. And again, the mere fact that such affections are normal, causes an expectation of the services that are their natural expression; and the disappointment of such expectations is inevitably painful. While finally, apart from these considerations, we can show in each care strong utilitarian reasons why, generally speaking, services should be rendered to the persons commonly recognised as having such claims rather than to others.

We have to observe, in conclusion, that the difficulties which we found in the way of determining by the Intuitional method the limits and the relative importance of these duties are reduced in the Utilitarian system, to difficulties of hedonistic comparison. For each of the preceding arguments has shown us different kinds of pleasures gained and pains averted by the fulfilment of the claims in question. There are, first, those which the service claimed would directly promote or avert: secondly, there is the pain and secondary harm of disappointed expectation, if the service be not rendered: thirdly, we have to reckon the various pleasures connected with the exercise of natural benevolent affections, especially when reciprocated, including the indirect effects on the agent's character of maintaining such affections. All these different pleasures and pains combine differently, and with almost infinite variation as circumstances vary, into utilitarian reasons for each of the claims in question; none of these reasons being absolute and conclusive, but each having its own weight, while liable to be outweighed by others.

[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §2]
[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, §4]