Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book IV

Chapter V


§2. Let us first recall the distinction previously noticed between duty as commonly conceived,---that to which a man is bound or obliged---, and praiseworthy or excellent conduct; since, in considering the relation of Utilitarianism to the moral judgments of Common Sense, it will be convenient to begin with the former element of current morality, as the more important and indispensable; i.e. with the ensemble of rules imposed by common opinion in any society, which form a kind of unwritten legislation, supplementary to Law proper, and enforced by the penalties of social disfavour and contempt. This legislation, as it does not emanate from a definite body of persons acting in a corporate capacity, cannot be altered by any formal deliberations and resolutions of the persons on whose consensus it rests; any change in it must therefore result from the private action of individuals, whether determined by Utilitarian considerations or otherwise. As we shall presently see, the practical Utilitarian problem is liable to be complicated by the conflict and divergence which is found to some extent in all societies between the moral opinions of different sections of the community: but it will be convenient to confine our attention in the first instance to the case of rules of duty clearly supported by `common consent'. Let us suppose then that after considering the consequences of any such rule, a Utilitarian comes to the conclusion that a different rule would be more conducive to the general happiness, if similarly established in a society remaining in other respects the same as at present---or in one slightly different (in so far as our forecast of social changes can be made sufficiently clear to furnish any basis for practice). And first we will suppose that this new rule differs from the old one not only positively but negatively; that it does not merely go beyond and include it, but actually conflicts with it. Before he can decide that it is right for him (i.e. conducive to the general happiness) to support the new rule against the old, by example and precept, he ought to estimate the force of certain disadvantages necessarily attendant upon such innovations, which may conveniently be arranged under the following heads.

In the first place, as his own happiness and that of others connected with him form a part of the universal end at which he aims, he must consider the importance to himself and them of the penalties of social disapprobation which he will incur: taking into account, besides the immediate pain of this disapprobation, its indirect effect in diminishing his power of serving society and promoting the general happiness in other ways. The prospect of such pain and loss is, of course, not decisive against the innovation; since it must to some extent be regarded as the regular price that has to be paid for the advantage of this kind of reform in current morality. But here, as in many Utilitarian calculations, everything depends on the quantity of the effects produced; which in the case supposed may vary very much, from slight distrust and disfavour to severe condemnation and social exclusion. It often seems that by attempting change prematurely an innovator may incur the severest form of the moral penalty, whereas if he had waited a few years he would have been let off with the mildest. For the hold which a moral rule has over the general mind commonly begins to decay from the time that it is seen to be opposed to the calculations of expediency: and it may be better for the community as well as for the individual that it should not be openly attacked, until this process of decay has reached a certain point.

It is, however, of more importance to point out certain general reasons for doubting whether an apparent improvement will really have a beneficial effect on others. It is possible that the new rule, though it would be more felicific than the old one, if it could get itself equally established, may be not so likely to be adopted, or if adopted, not so likely to be obeyed, by the mass of the community in which it is proposed to innovate. It may be too subtle and refined, or too complex and elaborate: it may require a greater intellectual development, or a higher degree of self-control, than is to be found in an average member of the community, or an exceptional quality or balance of feelings. Nor can it be said in reply, that by the hypothesis the innovator's example must be good to whatever extent it, operates, since pro tanto it tends to substitute a better rule for a worse. For experience seems to show that an example of this kind is more likely to be potent negatively than positively; that here, as elsewhere in human affairs, it is easier to pull down than to build up; easier to weaken or destroy the restraining force that a moral rule, habitually and generally obeyed, has over men's minds, than to substitute for it a new restraining habit, not similarly sustained by tradition and custom. Hence the effect of an example intrinsically good may be on the whole bad, because its destructive operation proves to be more vigorous than its constructive. And again, such destructive effect must be considered not only in respect of the particular rule violated, but of all other rules. For just as the breaking of any positive law has an inevitable tendency to encourage lawlessness generally, so the violation of any generally recognised moral rule seems to give a certain aid to the forces that are always tending towards moral anarchy in any society.

Nor must we neglect the reaction which any breach with customary morality will have on the agent's own mind. For the regulative habits and sentiments which each man has received by inheritance or training constitute an important force impelling his will, in the main, to conduct such as his reason would dictate; a natural auxiliary, as it were, to Reason in its conflict with seductive passions and appetites; and it may be practically dangerous to impair the strength of these auxiliaries. On the other hand, it would seem that the habit of acting rationally is the best of all habits, and that it ought to be the aim of a reasonable being to bring all his impulses and sentiments into more and more perfect harmony with Reason. And indeed when a man has earnestly accepted any moral principle, those of his pre-existing regulative habits and sentiments that are not in harmony with this principle tend naturally to decay and disappear; and it would perhaps be scarcely worth while to take them into account, except for the support that they derive from the sympathy of others.

But this last is a consideration of great importance. For the moral impulses of each individual commonly draw a large part of their effective force from the sympathy of other human beings. I do not merely mean that the pleasures and pains which each derives sympathetically from the moral likings and aversions of others are important as motives to felicific conduct no less than as elements of the individual's happiness: I mean further that the direct sympathetic echo in each man of the judgments and sentiments of others concerning conduct sustains his own similar judgments and sentiments. Through this twofold operation of sympathy it becomes practically much easier for most men to conform to a moral rule established in the society to which they belong than to one made by themselves. And any act by which a man weakens the effect on himself of this general moral sympathy tends pro tanto to make the performance of duty more difficult for him. On the other hand, we have to take into account---besides the intrinsic gain of the particular change---the general advantage of offering to mankind a striking example of consistent Utilitarianism; since, in this case as in others, a man gives a stronger proof of genuine conviction by conduct in opposition to public opinion than he can by conformity. In order, however, that this effect may be produced, it is almost necessary that the non-conformity should not promote the innovator's personal convenience; for in that case it will almost certainly be attributed to egoistic motives, however plausible the Utilitarian deduction of its rightness may seem.

The exact force of these various considerations will differ indefinitely in different cases; and it does not seem profitable to attempt any general estimate of them: but on the whole, it would seem that the general arguments which we have noticed constitute an important rational check upon such Utilitarian innovations on Common-Sense morality as are of the negative or destructive kind.

If now we consider such innovations as are merely positive and supplementary, and consist in adding a new rule to those already established by Common Sense; it will appear that there is really no collision of methods, so far as the Utilitarian's own observance of the new rule is concerned. For, as every such rule is, ex hypothesi, believed by him to be conducive to the common good, he is merely giving a special and stricter interpretation to the general duty of Universal Benevolence, where Common Sense leaves it loose and indeterminate. Hence the restraining considerations above enumerated do not apply to this case. And whatever it is right for him to do himself, it is obviously right for him to approve and recommend to other persons in similar circumstances. But it is a different question whether he ought to seek to impose his new rule on others, by express condemnation of all who are not prepared to adopt it; as this involves not only the immediate evil of the annoyance given to others, but also the further danger of weakening the general good effect of his moral example, through the reaction provoked by this aggressive attitude. On this point his decision will largely depend on the prospect, as far as he can estimate it, that his innovation will meet with support and sympathy from others.

It should be observed, however, that a great part of the reform in popular morality, which a consistent Utilitarian will try to introduce, will probably lie not so much in establishing new rules (whether conflicting with the old or merely supplementary) as in enforcing old ones. For there is always a considerable part of morality in the condition of receiving formal respect and acceptance, while yet it is not really sustained by any effective force of public opinion: and the difference between the moralities of any two societies is often more strikingly exhibited in the different emphasis attached to various portions of the moral code in each, than in disagreement as to the rules which the code should include. In the case we are considering, it is chiefly conduct which shows a want of comprehensive sympathy or of public spirit, to which the Utilitarian will desire to attach a severer condemnation than is at present directed against it. There is much conduct of this sort, of which the immediate effect is to give obvious pleasure to individuals while the far greater amount of harm that it more remotely and indirectly causes is but dimly recognised by Common Sense. Such conduct, therefore, even when it is allowed to be wrong, is very mildly treated by common opinion; especially when it is prompted by some impulse not self-regarding. Still, in all such cases, we do not require the promulgation of any new moral doctrine, but merely a bracing and sharpening of the moral sentiments of society, to bring them into harmony with the greater comprehensiveness of view and the more impartial concern for human happiness which characterise the Utilitarian system.

[ME, The Method of Utilitarianism---Continued, §1]
[ME, The Method of Utilitarianism---Continued, §3]