Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter IV


§1. If the view maintained in the preceding chapter as to the general Utilitarian basis of the Morality of Common Sense may be regarded as sufficiently established, we are now in a position to consider more closely to what method of determining right conduct the acceptance of Utilitarianism will practically lead. The most obvious method, of course, is that of Empirical Hedonism, discussed in Book ii. chap. iii.; according to which we have in each case to compare all the pleasures and pains that can be foreseen as probable results of the different alternatives of conduct presented to us, and to adopt the alternative which seems likely to lead to the greatest happiness on the whole.

In Book ii., however, it appeared that even the more restricted application of this method, which we there had to consider, was involved in much perplexity and uncertainty. Even when an individual is only occupied in forecasting his own pleasures, it seems difficult or impossible for him to avoid errors of considerable magnitude; whether in accurately comparing the pleasantness of his own past feelings, as represented in memory, or in appropriating the experience of others, or in arguing from the past to the future. And these difficulties are obviously much increased when we have to take into account all the effects of our actions on all the sentient beings who may be affected by them. At the same time, in Book ii. we could not find any satisfactory substitute for this method of empirical comparison. It did not appear reasonable to take refuge in the uncriticised beliefs of men in general as to the sources of happiness: indeed, it seemed impossible to extract any adequately clear and definite consensus of opinion from the confused and varying utterances of Common sense on this subject. Nor again could it be shown that the individual would be more likely to attain the greatest happiness open to him by practically confining his efforts to the realisation of any scientifically ascertainable physical or psychical conditions of happiness: nor did it seem possible to infer on empirical grounds that the desired result would be secured by conformity to the accepted principles of morality. But when we consider these latter in relation, not to the happiness of the individual, but to that of human (or sentient) beings generally, it is clear from the preceding chapter that the question of harmony between Hedonism and Intuitionism presents prima facie an entirely different aspect. Indeed from the considerations that we have just surveyed it is but a short and easy step to the conclusion that in the Morality of Common Sense we have ready to hand a body of Utilitarian doctrine; that the ``rules of morality for the multitude'' are to be regarded as ``positive beliefs of mankind as to the effects of actions on their happiness'',[1] so that the apparent first principles of Common Sense may be accepted as the ``middle axioms'' of Utilitarian method; direct reference being only made to utilitarian considerations, in order to settle points upon which the verdict of Common Sense is found to be obscure and conflicting. On this view the traditional controversy between the advocates of Virtue and the advocates of Happiness would seem to be at length harmoniously settled.

And the arguments for this view which have been already put forward certainly receive support from the hypothesis, now widely accepted, that the moral sentiments are ultimately derived, by a complex and gradual process, from experiences of pleasure and pain. The hypothesis, in a summary form, would seem to be this; (1) in the experience of each member of the human community the pain or alarm caused to him by actions of himself and of others tends by association to excite in him a dislike of such actions, and a similar though feebler effect is produced by his perception of pain or danger caused to others with whom he is connected by blood, or by community of interest, or any special tie of sympathy: (2) experience also tends more indirectly to produce in him sentiments restraining him from actions painful or alarming to others, through his dread of their resentment and its consequences,---especially dread of his chief's anger, and, where religious influence has become strong, of the anger of supernatural beings: (3) with these latter feelings blends a sympathetic aversion to the pain of other men generally, which---at first comparatively feeble---tends to grow in force as morality develops. In the same way experiences of pleasure and gratitude, and desire of the goodwill of others and its consequences, tend to produce liking for actions that are perceived to cause pleasure to self or to others. The similar aversions and likings that are thus produced in the majority of the members of any society, through the general similarity of their natures and conditions, tend to become more similar through communication and imitation,---the desire of each to retain the goodwill of others operating to repress individual divergencies. Thus common likings for conduct that affects pleasurably the community generally or some part of it, and common dislikes for conduct causing pain and alarm, come to be gradually developed; they are transmitted from generation to generation, partly perhaps by physical inheritance, but chiefly by tradition from parents to children, and imitation of adults by the young; in this way their origin becomes obscured, and they finally appear as what are called the moral sentiments. This theory does not, in my view, account adequately for the actual results of the faculty of moral judgment and reasoning, so far as I can examine them by reflection on my own moral consciousness: for this, as I have before said, does not yield any apparent intuitions that stand the test of rigorous examination except such as, from their abstract and general character, have no cognisable relation to particular experiences of any kind. But that the theory gives a partially true explanation of the historical origin of particular moral sentiments and habits and commonly accepted rules, I see no reason to doubt; and thus regarded it seems to supplement the arguments of the preceding chapter that tend to exhibit the morality of common sense as unconsciously or `instinctively' utilitarian.

But it is one thing to hold that the current morality expresses, partly consciously but to a larger extent unconsciously, the results of human experience as to the effects of actions: it is quite another thing to accept this morality en bloc, so far as it is clear and definite, as the best guidance we can get to the attainment of maximum general happiness. However attractive this simple reconciliation of Intuitional and Utilitarian methods may be, it is not, I think, really warranted by the evidence. In the first place, I hold that in a complete view of the development of the moral sense a more prominent place should be given to the effect of sympathy with the impulses that prompt to actions, as well as with the feelings that result from them. It may be observed that Adam Smith assigns to this operation of sympathy,---the echo (as it were) of each agent's passion in the breast of unconcerned spectators,---the first place in determining our approval and disapproval of actions;[4] sympathy with the effect of conduct on others he treats as a merely secondary factor, correcting and qualifying the former. Without going so far as this, I think that there are certainly many cases where the resulting moral consciousness would seem to indicate a balance or compromise between the two kinds of sympathy; and the compromise may easily be many degrees removed from the rule which Utilitarianism would prescribe. For though the passions and other active impulses are doubtless themselves influenced, no less than the moral sentiments, by experiences of pleasure and pain; still this influence is not sufficient to make them at all trustworthy guides to general, any more than to individual, happiness---as some of our moral sentiments themselves emphatically announce. But even if we consider our common moral sentiments as entirely due---directly or indirectly---to the accumulated and transmitted experiences of primary and sympathetic pains and pleasures; it is obvious that the degree of accuracy with which sentiments thus produced will guide us to the promotion of general happiness must largely depend upon the degree of accuracy with which the whole sum of pleasurable and painful consequences, resulting from any course of action, has been represented in the consciousness of an average member of the community. And it is seen at a glance that this representation has always been liable to errors of great magnitude, from causes that were partly noticed in the previous chapter, when we were considering the progress of morality. We have to allow, first, for limitation of sympathy; since in every age and country the sympathy of an average man with other sentient beings, and even his egoistic regard for their likings and aversions, has been much more limited than the influence of his actions on the feelings of others. We must allow further for limitation of intelligence: for in all ages ordinary men have had a very inadequate knowledge of natural sequences; so that such indirect consequences of conduct as have been felt have been frequently traced to wrong causes, and been met by wrong moral remedies, owing to imperfect apprehension of the relation of means to ends. Again, where the habit of obedience to authority and respect for rank has become strong, we must allow for the possibly perverting influence of a desire to win the favour or avert the anger of superiors. And similarly we must allow again for the influences of false religions; and also for the possibility that the sensibilities of religious teachers have influenced the code of duty accepted by their followers, in points where these sensibilities were not normal and representative, but exceptional and idiosyncratic.

On the other hand, we must suppose that these deflecting influences have been more or less limited and counteracted by the struggle for existence in past ages among different human races and communities; since, so far as any moral habit or sentiment was unfavourable to the preservation of the social organism, it would be a disadvantage in the struggle for existence, and would therefore tend to perish with the community that adhered to it. But we have no reason to suppose that this force would be adequate to keep positive morality always in conformity with a Utilitarian ideal. For (1) imperfect morality would be only one disadvantage among many, and not, I conceive, the most important, unless the imperfection were extreme,---especially in the earlier stages of social and moral development, in which the struggle for existence was most operative: and (2) a morality perfectly preservative of a human community might still be imperfectly felicific, and so require considerable improvement from a Utilitarian point of view.[6] Further, analogy would lead us to expect that however completely adapted the moral instincts of a community may be at some particular time to its conditions of existence, any rapid change of circumstances would tend to derange the adaptation, from survival of instincts formerly useful, which through this change become useless or pernicious. And indeed, apart from any apparent changes in external circumstances, it might result from the operation of some law of human development, that the most completely organised experience of human happiness in the past would guide us but imperfectly to the right means of making it a maximum in the future. For example, a slight decrease in the average strength of some common impulse might render the traditional rules and sentiments, that regulate this impulse, infelicific on the whole. And if, when we turn from these abstract considerations to history, and examine the actual morality of other ages and countries, we undoubtedly find that, considered as an instrument for producing general happiness, it continually seems to exhibit palpable imperfections,---there is surely a strong presumption that there are similar imperfections to be discovered in our own moral code, though habit and familiarity prevent them from being obvious.

Finally, we must not overlook the fact that the divergences which we find when we compare the moralities of different ages and countries, exist to some extent side by side in the morality of any one society at any given time. It has already been observed that whenever divergent opinions are entertained by a minority so large, that we cannot fairly regard the dogma of the majority as the plain utterance of Common Sense, an appeal is necessarily made to some higher principle, and very commonly to Utilitarianism. But a smaller minority than this, particularly if composed of persons of enlightenment and special acquaintance with the effects of the conduct judged, may reasonably inspire us with distrust of Common Sense: just as in the more technical parts of practice we prefer the judgment of few trained experts to the instincts of the vulgar. Yet again, contemplation of these divergent codes and their relation to the different circumstances in which men live, suggests that Common-Sense morality is really only adapted for ordinary men in ordinary circumstances---although it may still be expedient that these ordinary persons should regard it as absolutely and universally prescribed, since any other view of it may dangerously weaken its hold over their minds. So far as this is the case we must use the Utilitarian method to ascertain how far persons in special circumstances require a morality more specially adapted to them than Common Sense is willing to concede: and also bow far men of peculiar physical or mental constitution ought to be exempted from ordinary rules, as has sometimes been claimed for men of genius, or men of intensely emotional nature, or men gifted with more than usual prudence and self-control.

Further, it is important to notice, that besides the large amount of divergence that exists between the moral instincts of different classes and individuals, there is often a palpable discrepancy between the moral instincts of any class or individual, and such Utilitarian reasonings as their untrained intellects are in the habit of conducting. There are many things in conduct which many people think right but not expedient, or at least which they would not think expedient if they had not first judged them to be right; in so far as they reason from experience only, their conclusions as to what conduces to the general happiness are opposed to their moral intuitions. It may be said that this results generally from a hasty and superficial consideration of expediency; and that the discrepancy would disappear after a deeper and completer examination of the consequences of actions. And I do not deny that this would often turn out to be the case: but as we cannot tell a priori how far it would be so, this only constitutes a further argument for a comprehensive and systematic application of a purely Utilitarian method.

We must conclude, then, that we cannot take the moral rules of Common Sense as expressing the consensus of competent judges, up to the present time, as to the kind of conduct which is likely to produce the greatest amount of happiness on the whole. It would rather seem that it is the unavoidable duty of a systematic Utilitarianism to make a thorough revision of these rules, in order to ascertain how far the causes previously enumerated (and perhaps others) have actually operated to produce a divergence between Common Sense and a perfectly Utilitarian code of morality.

[ME, Relation of Utilitarianism to the Morality of Common Sense, Addendum]
[ME, The Method of Utilitarianism, §2]