Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter V


§1. If, then, we are to regard the morality of Common Sense as a machinery of rules, habits, and sentiments, roughly and generally but not precisely or completely adapted to the production of the greatest possible happiness for sentient beings generally; and if, on the other band, we have to accept it as the actually established machinery for attaining this end, which we cannot replace at once by any other, but can only gradually modify; it remains to consider the practical effects of the complex and balanced relation in which a scientific Utilitarian thus seems to stand to the Positive Morality of his age and country.

Generally speaking, he will clearly conform to it, and endeavour to promote its development in others. For, though the imperfection that we find in all the actual conditions of human existence---we may even say in the universe at large as judged from a human point of view---is ultimately found even in Morality itself, in so far as this is contemplated as Positive; still, practically, we are much less concerned with correcting and improving than we are with realising and enforcing it. The Utilitarian must repudiate altogether that temper of rebellion against the established morality, as something purely external and conventional, into which the reflective mind is always apt to fall when it is first convinced that the established rules are not intrinsically reasonable. He must, of course, also repudiate as superstitious that awe of it as an absolute or Divine Code which Intuitional moralists inculcate. Still, he will naturally contemplate it with reverence and wonder, as a marvellous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth, showing in many parts the same fine adaptation of means to complex exigencies as the most elaborate structures of physical organisms exhibit: he will handle it with respectful delicacy as a mechanism, constructed of the fluid element of opinions and dispositions, by the indispensable aid of which the actual quantum of human happiness is continually being produced; a mechanism which no `politicians or philosophers' could create, yet without which the harder and coarser machinery of Positive Law could not be permanently maintained, and the life of man would become---as Hobbes forcibly expresses it---``solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short''.

Still, as this actual moral order is admittedly imperfect, it will be the Utilitarian's duty to aid in improving it; just as the most orderly, law-abiding member of a modern civilised society includes the reform of laws in his conception of political duty. We have therefore to consider by what method he will ascertain the particular modifications of positive morality which it would be practically expedient to attempt to introduce, at any given time and place. Here our investigation seems, after all, to leave Empirical Hedonism as the only method ordinarily applicable for the ultimate decision of such problems---at least until the science of Sociology shall have been really constructed. I do not mean that the rudiments of Sociological knowledge which we now possess are of no practical value: for certainly changes in morality might be suggested---and have actually been proposed by persons seriously concerned to benefit their fellow-creatures---which even our present imperfect knowledge would lead us to regard as dangerous to the very existence. of the social organism. But such changes for the most part involve changes in positive law as well: since most of the rules of which the observance is fundamentally important for the preservation of an organized community are either directly or indirectly maintained by legal sanctions: and it would be going too far beyond the line which, in my view, separates ethics from politics, to discuss changes of this kind in the present book. The rules with which we have primarily to deal, in considering the utilitarian method of determining private duty, are rules supported by merely moral sanctions; and the question of maintaining or modifying such rules concerns, for the most part, the wellbeing rather than the very existence of human society. The consideration of this question, therefore, from a utilitarian point of view, resolves itself into a comparison between the total amounts of pleasure and pain that may be expected to result respectively from maintaining any given rule as at present established, and from endeavouring to introduce that which is proposed in its stead. That this comparison must generally be of a rough and uncertain kind, we have already seen; and it is highly important to bear this in mind; but yet we seem unable to find any substitute for it. It is not meant, of course, that each individual is left to his own unassisted judgment in dealing with such questions: there is a mass of traditional experience, which each individual imbibes orally or from books, as to the effects of conduct upon happiness; but the great formulae in which this experience is transmitted are, for the most part, so indefinite, the proper range of their application so uncertain, and the observation and induction on which they are founded so uncritical, that they stand in continual need of further empirical verification; especially as regards their applicability to any particular case.

It is perhaps not surprising that some thinkers of the Utilitarian school should consider that the task of hedonistic calculation which is thus set before the utilitarian moralist is too extensive: and should propose to simplify it by marking off a ``large sphere of individual option and self-guidance'', to which ``ethical dictation'' does not apply. I should quite admit that it is clearly expedient to draw a dividing line of this kind: but it appears to me that there is no simple general method of drawing it; that it can only be drawn by careful utilitarian calculation applied with varying results to the various relations and circumstances of human life. To attempt the required division by means of any such general formula as that `the individual is not responsible to society for that part of his conduct which concerns himself alone and others only with their free and undeceived consent'[3] seems to me practically futile: since, owing to the complex enlacements of interest and sympathy that connect the members of a civilised community, almost any material loss of happiness by any one individual is likely to affect some others without their consent to some not inconsiderable extent. And I do not see how it is from a utilitarian point of view justifiable to say broadly with J. S. Mill that such secondary injury to others, if merely ``constructive or presumptive'', is to be disregarded in view of the advantages of allowing free development to individuality; for if the injury feared is great, and the presumption that it will occur is shown by experience to be strong, the definite risk of evil from the withdrawal of the moral sanction must, I conceive, outweigh the indefinite possibility of loss through the repression of individuality in one particular direction.[4] But further: even supposing that we could mark off the ``sphere of individual option and self-guidance'' by some simple and sweeping formula, still within this sphere the individual, if he wishes to guide himself reasonably on utilitarian principles, must take some account of all important effects of his actions on the happiness of others; and if he does this methodically, he must, I conceive, use the empirical method which we have examined in Book ii. And---to prevent any undue alarm at this prospect---we may observe that every sensible man is commonly supposed to determine at least a large part of his conduct by what is substantially this method; it is assumed that, within the limits which morality lays down, he will try to get as much happiness as he can for himself and for other human beings, according to the relations in which they stand to him, by combining in some way his own experience with that of other men as to the felicific and infelicific effects of actions. And it is actually in this way that each man usually deliberates (e.g.) what profession to choose for himself, or what mode of education for his children, whether to aim at marriage or remain single, whether to settle in town or country, in England or abroad, etc. No doubt there are, as we saw, other ends besides Happiness, such as Knowledge, Beauty, etc., commonly recognised as unquestionably desirable, and therefore largely pursued without consideration of ulterior consequences: but when the pursuit of any of there ends involves an apparent sacrifice of happiness in other ways, the practical question whether under these circumstances such pursuit ought to be maintained or abandoned seems always decided by an application, however rough, of the method of pure empirical Hedonism.

And in saying that this must be the method of the Utilitarian moralist, I only mean that no other can normally be applied in reducing to a common measure the diverse elements of the problems with which he has to deal. Of course, in determining the nature and importance of each of these diverse considerations, the utilitarian art of morality will lay various sciences under contribution. Thus, for example, it will learn from Political Economy what effects a general censure of usurers, or the ordinary commendation of liberality in almsgiving, is likely to have on the wealth of the community; it will learn from the physiologist the probable consequences to health of a general abstinence from alcoholic liquors or any other restraint on appetite proposed in the name of Temperance; it will learn from the experts in any science how far knowledge is likely to be promoted by investigations offensive to any prevalent moral or religious sentiment. But how far the increase of wealth or of knowledge, or even the improvement of health, should under any circumstances be subordinated to other considerations, I know no scientific method of determining other than that of empirical Hedonism. Nor, as I have said, does it seem to me that any other method has ever been applied or sought by the common sense of mankind, for regulating the pursuit of what our older moralists called `Natural Good', i.e. of all that is intrinsically desirable except Virtue or Morality, within the limits fixed by the latter; the Utilitarian here only performs somewhat more consistently and systematically than ordinary men the reasoning processes which are commonly admitted to be appropriate to the questions that this pursuit raises. His distinctive characteristic, as a Utilitarian, is that he has to apply the same method to the criticism and correction of the limiting morality itself. The particulars of this criticism will obviously vary almost indefinitely with the variations in human nature and circumstances: I here only propose to discuss the general points of view which a Utilitarian critic must take, in order that no important class of relevant considerations may be omitted.

[ME, The Method of Utilitarianism, §3]
[ME, The Method of Utilitarianism---Continued, §2]