Principia Ethica/Chapter V
ETHICS IN RELATION TO CONDUCT.
86. In the present chapter we have again to take a great step in ethical method. My discussion hitherto has fallen under two main heads. Under the first, I tried to shew what ‘good’—the adjective ‘good’—means. This appeared to be the first point to be settled in any treatment of Ethics, that should aim at being systematic. It is necessary we should know this, should know what good means, before we can go on to consider what is good—what things or qualities are good. It is necessary we should know it for two reasons. The first reason is that ‘good’ is the notion upon which all Ethics depends. We cannot hope to understand what we mean, when we say that this is good or that is good, until we understand quite clearly, not only what ‘this’ is or ‘that’ is (which the natural sciences and philosophy can tell us) but also what is meant by calling them good, a matter which is reserved for Ethics only. Unless we are quite clear on this point, our ethical reasoning will be always apt to be fallacious. We shall think that we are proving that a thing is ‘good,’ when we are really only proving that it is something else; since unless we know what ‘good’ means, unless we know what is meant by that notion in itself, as distinct from what is meant by any other notion, we shall not be able to tell when we are dealing with it and when we are dealing with something else, which is perhaps like it, but yet not the same. And the second reason why we should settle first of all this question ‘What good means?’ is a reason of method. It is this, that we can never know on what evidence an ethical proposition rests, until we know the nature of the notion which makes the proposition ethical. We cannot tell what is possible, by way of proof, in favour of one judgment that ‘This or that is good,’ or against another judgment ‘That this or that is bad,’ until we have recognised what the nature of such propositions must always be. In fact, it follows from the meaning of good and bad, that such propositions are all of them, in Kant’s phrase, ‘synthetic’: they all must rest in the end upon some proposition which must be simply accepted or rejected, which cannot be logically deduced from any other proposition. This result, which follows from our first investigation, may be otherwise expressed by saying that the fundamental principles of Ethics must be self-evident. But I am anxious that this expression should not be misunderstood. The expression ‘self-evident’ means properly that the proposition so called is evident or true, by itself alone; that it is not an inference from some proposition other than itself. The expression does not mean that the proposition is true, because it is evident to you or me or all mankind, because in other words it appears to us to be true. That a proposition appears to be true can never be a valid argument that true it really is. By saying that a proposition is self-evident, we mean emphatically that its appearing so to us, is not the reason why it is true: for we mean that it has absolutely no reason. It would not be a self-evident proposition, if we could say of it: I cannot think otherwise and therefore it is true. For then its evidence or proof would not lie in itself, but in something else, namely our conviction of it. That it appears true to us may indeed be the cause of our asserting it, or the reason why we think and say that it is true: but a reason in this sense is something utterly different from a logical reason, or reason why something is true. Moreover, it is obviously not a reason of the same thing. The evidence of a proposition to us is only a reason for our holding it to be true: whereas a logical reason, or reason in the sense in which self-evident propositions have no reason, is a reason why the proposition itself must be true, not why we hold it so to be. Again that a proposition is evident to us may not only be the reason why we do think or affirm it, it may even be a reason why we ought to think it or affirm it. But a reason, in this sense too, is not a logical reason for the truth of the proposition, though it is a logical reason for the rightness of holding the proposition. In our common language, however, these three meanings of ‘reason’ are constantly confused, whenever we say ‘I have a reason for thinking that true.’ But it is absolutely essential, if we are to get clear notions about Ethics or, indeed, about any other, especially any philosophical, study, that we should distinguish them. When, therefore, I talk of Intuitionistic Hedonism, I must not be understood to imply that my denial that ‘Pleasure is the only good’ is based on my Intuition of its falsehood. My intuition of its falsehood is indeed my reason for holding and declaring it untrue; it is indeed the only valid reason for so doing. But that is just because there is no logical reason for it; because there is no proper evidence or reason of its falsehood except itself alone. It is untrue, because it is untrue, and there is no other reason: but I declare it untrue, because its untruth is evident to me, and I hold that that is a sufficient reason for my assertion. We must not therefore look on Intuition, as if it were an alternative to reasoning. Nothing whatever can take the place of reasons for the truth of any proposition: intuition can only furnish a reason for holding any proposition to be true: this however it must do when any proposition is self-evident, when, in fact, there are no reasons which prove its truth.
87. So much, then, for the first step which established that good is good and nothing else whatever, and that Naturalism was a fallacy. A second step was taken when we began to consider proposed self-evident principles of Ethics. In this second division, resting on our result that good means good, we began the discussion of propositions asserting that such and such a thing or quality or concept was good. Of such a kind was the principle of Intuitionistic or Ethical Hedonism—the principle that ‘Pleasure alone is good.’ Following the method established by our first discussion, I claimed that the untruth of this proposition was self-evident. I could do nothing to prove that it was untrue; I could only point out as clearly as possible what it means, and how it contradicts other propositions which appear to be equally true. My only object in all this was, necessarily, to convince. But even if I did convince, that does not prove that we are right. It justifies us in holding that we are so; but nevertheless we may be wrong. On one thing, however, we may justly pride ourselves. It is that we have had a better chance of answering our questions rightly, than Bentham or Mill or Sidgwick or others who have contradicted us. For we have proved that these have never even asked themselves the question which they professed to answer. They have confused it with another question: small wonder, therefore, if their answer is different from ours. We must be quite sure that the same question has been put, before we trouble ourselves at the different answers that are given to it. For all we know, the whole world would agree with us, if they could once clearly understand the question upon which we want their votes. Certain it is, that in all those cases where we found a difference of opinion, we found also that the question had not been clearly understood. Though, therefore, we cannot prove that we are right, yet we have a reason to believe that everybody, unless he is mistaken as to what he thinks, will think the same as we. It is as with a sum in mathematics. If we find a gross and palpable error in the calculations, we are not surprised or troubled that the person who made this mistake has reached a different result from ours. We think he will admit that his result is wrong, if his mistake is pointed out to him. For instance if a man has to add up , we should not wonder that he made the result to be 34, if he started by making . And so in Ethics, if we find, as we did, that ‘desirable’ is confused with ‘desired,’ or that ‘end’ is confused with ‘means,’ we need not be disconcerted that those who have committed these mistakes do not agree with us. The only difference is that in Ethics, owing to the intricacy of its subject matter, it is far more difficult to persuade anyone either that he has made a mistake or that that mistake affects his result.
In this second division of my subject—the division which is occupied with the question, ‘What is good in itself?’—I have hitherto only tried to establish one definite result, and that a negative one: namely that pleasure is not the sole good. This result, if true, refutes half, or more than half, of the ethical theories which have ever been held, and is, therefore, not without importance. It will, however, be necessary presently to deal positively with the question: What things are good and in what degrees?
88. But before proceeding to this discussion I propose, first, to deal with the third kind of ethical question—the quesiton: What ought we to do?
The answering of this question constitutes the third great division of ethical enquiry; and its nature was briefly explained in Chap. I. (§§ 15—17). It introduces into Ethics, as was there pointed out, an entirely new question—the question what things are related as causes to that which is good in itself; and this question can only be answered by an entirely new method—the method of empirical investigation; by means of which causes are discovered in the other sciences. To ask what kind of actions we ought to perform, or what kind of conduct is right, is to ask what kind of effects such action and conduct will produce. Not a single question in practical Ethics can be answered except by a causal generalisation. All such questions do, indeed, also involve an ethical judgment proper—the judgment that certain effects are better, in themselves, than others. But they do assert that these better things are effects—are causally connected with the actions in question. Every judgment in practical Ethics may be reduced to the form: This is a cause of that good thing.
89. That this is the case, that the questions, What is right? what is my duty? what ought I to do? belong exclusively to this third branch of ethical enquiry, is the first point to which I wish to call attention. All moral laws, I wish to shew, are merely statements that certain kinds of actions will have good effects. The very opposite of this view has been generally prevalent in Ethics. ‘The right’ and ‘the useful’ have been supposed to be at least capable of conflicting with one another, and, at all events, to be essentially distinct. It has been characteristic of a certain school of moralists, as of moral common sense, to declare that the end will never justify the means. What I wish first to point out is that ‘right’ does and can mean nothing but ‘cause of a good result,’ and is thus identical with ‘useful’; whence it follows that the end always will justify the means, and that no action which is not justified by its results can be right. That there may be a true proposition, meant to be conveyed by the assertion ‘The end will not justify the means,’ I fully admit: but that, in another sense, and a sense far more fundamental for ethical theory, it is utterly false, must first be shewn.
That the assertion ‘I am morally bound to perform this action’ is identical with the assertion ‘This saction will produce the greatest amount of good in the Universe’ has already been briefly shewn in Chap I (§ 17); but it is important to insist that this fundamental point is demonstrably certain. This may, perhaps, be best made evident in the following way. It is plain that when we assert that a certain action is our absolute duty, we are asserting that the performance of that action at that time is unique in respect of value. But no dutiful action can possibly have unique value in the sense that it is the sole thing of value in the world; since, in that case, every such action would be the sole good thing, which is a manifest contradiction. And for the same reason its value cannot be unique in the sense that it has more intrinsic value than anything else in the world, since every act of duty would then be the best thing in the world, which is also a contradiction. It can, therefore, be unique only in the sense that the whole world will be better, if it be performed, than if any possible alternative were taken. And the question whether this is so cannot possibly depend solely on the question of its own intrinsic value. For any action will also have effects different from those of any other action; and if any of these have intrinsic value, their value is exactly as relevant to the total goodness of the Universe as that of their cause. It is, in fact, evident that, however valuable an action may be in itself, yet, owing to its existence, the sum of good in the Universe may conceivably be made less than if some other action, less valuable in itself, had been performed. But to say that this is the case is to say that it would have been better that the action should not have been done; and this again is obviously equivalent to the statement that it ought not to have been done—that it was not what duty required. ‘Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum’ can only be justified on the ground that by the doing of justice the Universe gains more than it loses by the falling of the heavens. It is, of course, possible that this is the case: but, at all events, to assert that justice is a duty, in spite of such consequences, is to assert that it is the case.
Our ‘duty,’ therefore, can only be defined as that action, which will cause more good to exist in the Universe than any possible alternative. And what is ‘right’ or ‘morally permissible’ only differs from this, as what will not cause less good than any possible alternative. When, therefore, Ethics presumes to assert that certain ways of acting are ‘duties’ it presumes to assert that to act in those ways will always produce the greatest possible sum of good. If we are told that to ‘do no murder’ is a duty, we are told that the action, whatever it may be, which is called murder, will under no circumstances cause so much good to exist in the Universe as its avoidance.
90. But, if this be recognised, several most important consequences follow, with regard to the relation of Ethics to conduct.
(1) It is plain that no moral law is self-evident, as has commonly been held by the Intuitional school of moralists. The Intuitional view of Ethics consists in the supposition that certain rules, stating that certain actions are always to be done or to be omitted, may be taken as self-evident premisses. I have shewn with regard to judgments of what is good in itself, that this is the case; no reason can be given for them. But it is the essence of Intuitionism to suppose that rules of action—statements not of what ought to be, but of what we ought to do—are in the same sense intuitively certain. Plausibility has been lent to this view by the fact that we do undoubtedly make immediate judgments that certain actions are obligatory or wrong: we are thus often intuitively certain of our duty, in a psychological sense. But, nevertheless, these judgments are not self-evident and cannot be taken as ethical premisses, since, as has now been shewn, they are capable of being confirmed or refuted by an investigation of causes and effects. It is, indeed, possible that some of our immediate intuitions are true; but since what we intuit, what conscience tells us, is that certain actions will always produce the greatest sum of good possible under the circumstances, it is plain that reasons can be given, which will shew the deliverances of conscience to be true or false.
91. (2) In order to shew that any action is a duty, it is necessary to know both what are the other conditions, which will, conjointly with it, determine its effects; to know exactly what will be the effects of these conditions; and to know all the events which will be in any way affected by our action throughout an infinite future. We must have all this causal knowledge, and further we must know accurately the degree of value both of the action itself and of all these effects; and must be able to determine how, in conjunction with the other things in the Universe, they will affect its value as an organic whole. And not only this: we must also possess all this knowledge with regard to the effects of every possible alternative; and must then be able to see by comparison that the total value due to the existence of the action in question will be greater. But it is obvious that our causal knowledge alone is far too incomplete for us ever to assure ourselves of this result, that an action is our duty: we can never be sure that any action will produce the greatest value possible.
Ethics, therefore, is quite unable to give us a list of duties: but there still remains a humbler task which may be possible for Practical Ethics. Although we cannot hope to discover which, in a given situation, is the best of all possible alternative actions, there may be some possibility of shewing which among the alternatives, likely to occur to any one, will produce the greatest sum of good. This second task is certainly all that Ethics can ever have accomplished: and it is certainly all that it has ever collected materials for proving; since no one has ever attempted to exhaust the possible alternative actions in any particular case. Ethical philosophers have in fact confined their attention to a very limited class of actions, which have been selected because they are those which most commonly occur to mankind as possible alternatives. With regard to these they may possibly have shewn that one alternative is better, i.e. produces a greater total of value, than others. But it seems desirable to insist, that though they have represented this result as a determination of duties, it can never really have been so. For the term duty is certainly so used that, if we are subsequently persuaded that any possible action would have produced more good than the one we adopted, we admit that we failed to do our duty. It will, however, be a useful task if Ethics can determine which among alternatives likely to occur will produce the greatest total value. For, though this alternative cannot be proved to be the best possible, yet it may be better than any course of action which we should otherwise adopt.
92. A difficulty in distinguishing this task, which Ethics may perhaps undertake with some hope of success, from the hopeless task of finding duties, arises from an ambiguity in the use of the term ‘possible.’ An action may, in one perfectly legitimate sense, be said to be ‘impossible’ solely because the idea of doing it does not occur to us. In this sense, then, the alternatives which do actually occur to a man would be the only possible alternatives; and the best of these would be the best possible action under the circumstances, and hence would conform to our definition of ‘duty.’ But when we talk of the best possible action as our duty, we mean by the term any action which no other known circumstance would prevent, provided the idea of it occurred to us. And this use of the term is in accordance with popular usage. For we admit that a man may fail to do his duty, through neglecting to think of what he might have done. Since, therefore, we say that he might have done, what nevertheless did not occur to him, it is plain that we do not limit his possible actions to those of which he thinks. It might be urged, with more plausibility, that we mean by a man’s duty only the best of those actions of which he might have thought. And it is true that we do not blame any man very severely for omitting an action of which, as we say, ‘he could not be expected to think.’ But even here it is plain that we recognise a distinction between what he might have done and what he might have thought of doing: we regard it as a pity that he did not do otherwise. And ‘duty’ is certainly used in such a sense, that it would be a contradiction in terms to say that it was a pity that a man did his duty.
We must, therefore, distinguish a possible action from an action of which it is possible to think. By the former we mean an action which no known cause would prevent, provided the idea of it occurred to us: and that one among such actions, which will produce the greatest total good, is what we mean by duty. Ethics certainly cannot hope to discover what kind of action is always our duty in this sense. It may, however, hope to decide which among one or two such possible actions is the best: and those which it has chosen to consider are, as a matter of fact, the most important of those with regard to which men deliberate whether they shall or shall not do them. A decision with regard to these may therefore be easily confounded with a decision with regard to which is the best possible action. But it is to be noted that even though we limit ourselves to considering which is the better among alternatives likely to be thought of, the fact that these alternatives might be thought of is not included in what what we mean by calling them possible alternatives. Even if in any particular case it was impossible that the idea of them should have occurred to a man, the question we are concerned with is, which, if it had occurred, would have been the best alternative? If we say that murder is always a worse alternative, we mean to assert that it is so, even where it was impossible for the murderer to think of doing anything else.
The utmost, then, that Practical Ethics can hope to discover is which, among a few alternatives possible under certain circumstances, will, on the whole, produce the best result. It may tell us which is the best, in this sense, of certain alternatives about which we are likely to deliberate; and since we may also know that, even if we choose none of these, what we shall, in that case, do is unlikely to be as good as one of them, it may thus tell us which of the alternatives, among which we can choose, it is best to choose. If it could do this it would be sufficient for practical guidance.
93. But (3) it is plain that even this is a task of immense difficulty. It is difficult to see how we can establish even a probability that by doing one thing we shall obtain a better total result than by doing another. I shall merely endeavour to point out how much is assumed, when we assume that there is such a probability, and on what lines it seems possible that this assumption may be justified—that no sufficient reason has ever yet been found for considering one action more right or more wrong than another.
(a) The first difficulty in the way of establishing a probability that one course of action will give a better total result than another, lies in the fact that we have to take account of the effects of both throughout an infinite future. We have no certainty but that, if we do one action now, the Universe will, throughout all time, differ in some way from what it would have been, if we had done another; and, if there is such a permanent difference, it is certainly relevant to our calculation. But it is quite certain that our causal knowledge is utterly insufficient to tell us what different effects will probably result from two different actions, except within a comparatively short space of time; we can certainly only pretend to calculate the effects of actions within what may be called an ‘immediate’ future. No one, when he proceeds upon what he considers a rational consideration of effects, would guide his choice by any forecast that went beyond a few centuries at most; and, in general, we consider that we have acted rationally, if we think we have secured a balance of good within a few years or months or days. Yet, if a choice guided by such considerations is to be rational, we must certainly have some reason to believe that no consequences of our action in a further future will generally be such as to reverse the balance of good that is probable in the future which we can forsee. This large postulate must be made, if we are ever to assert that the results of one action will be even probably better than those of another. Our utter ignorance of the far future gives us no justification for saying that it is even probably right to choose the greater good within the region over which a probable forecast may extend. We do, then, assume that it is improbable that effects, after a certain time, will, in general, be such as to reverse the comparative value of the alternative results within that time. And that this assumption is justified must be shewn before we can claim to have given any reason whatever for acting in one way rather than in another. It may, perhaps, be justified by some such considerations as the following. As we proceed further and further from the time at which alternative actions are open to us, the events of which either action would be part cause become increasingly dependent on those other circumstances, which are the same, whichever action we adopt. The effects of any individual action seem, after a sufficient space of time, to be found only in trifling modifications spread over a very wide area, whereas its immediate effects consist in some prominent modification of a comparatively narrow area. Since, however, most of the things which have any great importance for good or evil are things of this prominent kind, there may be a probability that after a certain time all the effects of any particular action become so nearly indifferent, that any difference between their value and that of the effects of another action, is very unlikely to outweigh an obvious difference in the value of the immediate effects. It does in fact appear to be the case that, in most cases, whatever action we now adopt, ‘it will be all the same a hundred years hence,’ so far as the existence at that time of anything greatly good or bad is concerned: and this might, perhaps, be shewn to be true, by an investigation of the manner in which the effects of any particular event become neutralsed by lapse of time. Failing such a proof, we can certainly have no rational ground for asserting that one of two alternatives is even probably right another wrong. If any of our judgments of right and wrong are to pretend to probability, we must have reason to think that the effects of our actions in the far future will not have value sufficient to outweigh any superiority of one set of effects over another in the immediate future.
94. (b) We must assume, then, that if the effects of one action are generally better than those of another, so far forward in the future as we are able to forsee any probable difference in their effects at all, then the total effect upon the Universe of the former action is also generally better. We certainly cannot hope directly to compare their effects except within a limited future; and all the arguments, which have ever been used in Ethics, and upon which we commonly act in common life, directed to shewing that one course is superior to another, are (apart from theological dogmas) confined to pointing out such probable immediate advantages. The question remains then; Can we lay down any general rules to the effect that one among a few alternative actions will generally produce a greater total of good in the immediate future?
It is important to insist that this question, limited as it is, is the utmost, to which, with any knowledge we have at present or are likely to have for a long time to come, Practical Ethics can hope to give an answer. I have already pointed out that we cannot hope to discover which is the best possible alternative in any given circumstances, but only which, among a few, is better than the others. And I have also pointed out that there is certainly no more than a probability, even if we are entitled to assert so much, that what is better in regard to its immediate effects will also be better on the whole. It now remains to insist that, even with regard to these immediate effects, we can only hope to discover which, among a few alternatives, will generally produce the greatest balance of good in the immediate future. We can secure no title to assert that obedience to such commands as ‘Thou shalt not lie,’ or even ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ is universally better than the alternatives of lying and murder. Reasons why no more than a general knowledge is possible have already been given in Chap. I. (§ 16); but they may be recapitulated here. In the first place, of the effects, which principally concern us in ethical discussions, as having intrinsic value, we know the causes so little, that we can scarcely claim, with regard to any single one, to have obtained even a hypothetical universal law, such as has been obtained in the exact sciences. We cannot even say: If this action is performed, under exactly these circumstances, and if no others interfere, this important effect, at least, will always be produced. But, in the second place, an ethical law is not merely hypothetical. If we are to know that it will always be better to act in a certain way, under certain circumstances, we must know not merely wha effects such actions will produce, provided no other circumstances interfere, but also that no other circumstances will interfere. And this it is obviouisly impossible to know with more than probability. An ethical law has the nature not of a scientific law but of a scientific prediction: and the latter is always merely probable, although the probability may be very great. An engineer is entitled to assert that, if a bridge be built in a certain way, it will probably bear certain loads for a certain time; but he can never be absolutely certain that it has been built in the way required, nor that, even if it has, some accident will not intervene to falsify his prediction. With any ethical law, the same must be the case; it can be no more than a generalisation: and here, owing to the comparative absence of accurate hypothetical knowledge, on which the prediction should be based, the probability is comparatively small. But finally, for an ethical generalisation, we require to know not only what effects will be produced, but also what are the comparative values of those effects; and on this question too, it must be admitted, considering what a prevalent opinion Hedonism has been, that we are very likely to be mistaken. It is plain, then, that we are not soon likely to know more than that one kind of action will generally produce better effects than another; and that more than this has certainly never been proved. In no two cases will all the effects of any kind of action be precisely the same, because in each case some of the circumstances will differ; and although the effects, that are important for good or evil, may be generally the same, it is extremely unlikely that they will always be so.
95. (c) If, now, we confine ourselves to a search for actions which are generally better as means than any probable alternative, it seems possible to establish as much as this in defence of most of the rules most universally recognised by Common Sense. I do not propose to enter upon this defence in detail, but merely to point out what seem to be the chief distinct principles by the use of which it can be made.
In the first place, then, we can only shew that one action is generally better than another as a means, provided that certain other circumstances are given. We do, as a matter of fact, only observe its good effects under certain circumstances, and it may be easily seen that a sufficient change in these would render doubtful what seem to be the most universally certain of general rules. Thus, the general disutility of murder can only be proved, provided the majority of the human race will certainly persist in existing. In order to prove that murder, if it were so universally adopted as to cause the speedy extermination of the race, would not be good as a means, we should have to disprove the main contention of pessimism—namely that the existence of human life is on the whole an evil. And the view of pessimism, however strongly we may be convinced of its truth or falsehood, is one which never has been either proved or refuted conclusively. That universal murder would not be a good thing at this moment can therefore not be proved. But, as a matter of fact, we can and do assume with certainty that, even if a few people are willing to murder, most people will not be willing. When, therefore, we say that murder is in general to be avoided, we only mean that it is so, so long as the majority of mankind will certainly not agree to it, but will persist in living. And that, under these circumstances, it is generally wrong for any single person to commit murder seems capable of proof. For, since there is in any case no hope of exterminating the race, the only effects which we have to consider are those which the action will have upon the increase of the goods and the diminution of the evils of human life. Where the best is not attainable (assuming extermination the best) one alternative may still be better than another. And, apart from the immediate evils which murder generally produces, the fact that, if it were common practice, the feeling of insecurity, thus caused, would absorb much time, which might be spent to better purpose, is perhaps conclusive against it. So long as men desire to live as strongly as they do, and so long as it is certain that they will continue to do so, anything which hinders them from devoting their energy to the attainment of positive goods, seems plainly bad as a means. And the general practice of murder, falling so far short of universality as it certainly must in all known conditions of society, seems certainly to be a hindrance of this kind.
A similar defence seems possible for most of the rules, most universally enforced by legal sanctions, such as respect of property; and for some of those most commonly recognised by Common Sense, such as industry, temperance and the keeping of promises. In any state of society in which men have that intense desire for property of some sort, which seems to be universal, the common legal rules for the protection of property must serve greatly to facilitate the best possible expenditure of energy. And similarly: Industry is a means to the attainment of those necessaries, without which the further attainment of any great positive goods is impossible; temperance merely enjoins the avoidance of those excesses, which, by injuring health, would prevent a man from contributing as much as possible to the acquirement of these necessaries; and the keeping of promises greatly facilitates cooperation in such acquirement.
Now all these rules seem to have two characteristics to which it is desirable to call attention. (1) They seem all to be such that, in any known state of society, a general observance of them would be good as a means. The conditions upon which their utility depends, namely the tendency to preserve and propagate life and the desire of property, seem to be so universal and so strong, that it would be impossible to remove them; and, this being so, we can say that, under any conditions which could actually be given, the general observance of these rules would be good as a means. For, while there seems to be no reason to think that their observance ever makes a society worse than one in which they are not observed, it is certainly necessary as a means for any state of things in which the greatest possible goods can be attained. And (2) these rules, since they can be recommended as a means to that which is itself only a necessary condition for the existence of any great good, can be defended independently of correct views upon the primary ethical question of what is good in itself. On any view commonly taken, it seems certain that the preservation of civilised society, which these rules are necessary effect, is necessary for the existence, in any great degree, of anything which may be held to be good in itself.
96. But not by any means all the rules commonly recognised combine these two characteristics. The arguments offered in defence of Common Sense morality very often presupposes the existence of conditions, which cannot be fairly assumed to be so universally necessary as the tendency to continue life and to desire property. Such arguments, accordingly, only prove the utility of the rule, so long as certain conditions, which may alter, remain the same: it cannot be claimed of the rules thus defended, that they would be generally good as means in every state of society: in order to establish this universal general utility, it would be necessary to arrive at a correct view of what is good or evil in itself. This, for instance, seems to be the case with most of the rules comprehended under the name of Chastity. These rules are commonly defended, by Utilitarian writers who assume as their end the conservation of society, with arguments which presuppose the necessary existence of such sentiments as conjugal jealousy and paternal affection. These sentiments are no doubt sufficiently strong and general to make the defence valid for many conditions of society. But it is not difficult to imagine a civilised society existing without them; and, in such a case, if chastity were still to be defended, it would be necessary to establish that its violation produced evil effects, other than htose due to the assumed tendency of such violation to disintegrate society. Such a defence may, no doubt, be made; but it would require an examination into the primary ethical question of what is good and bad in itself, far more thorough than any ethical writer has ever offered to us. Whether this be so in this particular case or not, it is certain that a distinction, not commonly recognised, should be made between those rules, of which the social utility depends upon the existence of circumstances, more or less likely to alter, and those of which the utility seems certain under all possible conditions.
97. It is obvious that all the rules, which were enumerated above as likely to be useful in almost any state of society, can also be defended owing to results which they produce under conditions which exist only in particular states of society. And it should be noticed that we are entitled to reckon among these conditions the sanctions of legal penalties, of social disapproval, and of private remorse, where these exist. These sanctions are, indeed, commonly treated by Ethics only as motives for the doing of actions of which the utility can be proved independently of the existence of these sanctions. And it may be admitted that sanctions ought not to be attached to actions which would not be right independently. Nevertheless it is plain that, where they do exist, they are not only motives but also justifications for the actions in question. One of the chief reasons why an action should not be done in any particular state of society is that it will be punished; since the punishment is in general itself a greater evil than would have been caused by the omission of the action punished. Thus the existence of a punishment may be an adequate reason for regarding an action as generally wrong, even though it has no other bad effects but even slightly good ones. The fact that an action will be punished is a condition of exactly the same kind as others of more or less permanence, which must be taken into account in discussing the general utility or disutility of an action in a particular state of society.
98. It is plain, then, that the rules commonly recognised by Common Sense, in the society in which we live, and commonly advocated as if they were all equally and universally right and good, are of very different orders. Even those which seem to be most universally good as means, can only be shewn to be so, because of the existence of conditions, which, though perhaps evils, may be taken to be necessary; and even these owe their more obvious utilities to the existence of conditions, which cannot be taken to be necessary except over longer or shorter periods of history, and many of which are evils. Others seem to be justifiable solely by the existence of such more or less temporary conditions, unless we abandon the attempt to shew that they are means to that preservation of society, which is itself a mere means, and are able to establish that they are directly means to things good or evil in themselves, but which are not commonly recognised to be such.
If, then, we ask what rules are or would be useful to be observed in the society in which we live, it seems possible to prove a definite utility in most of those which are in general both recognised and practised. But a great part of ordinary moral exhortation and social discussion consists in the advocating of rules, which are not generally practised; and with regard to these it seems very doubtful whether a case for their general utility can ever be conclusively made out. Such proposed rules commonly suffer from three main defects. In the first place (1) the actions which they advocate are very commonly such as it is impossible for most individuals to perform by any volition. It is far too usual to find classed together with actions, which can be performed, if only they be willed, others, of which the possibility depends on the possession of a peculiar disposition, which is given to few and cannot even be acquired. It may, no doubt, be useful to point out that those who have the necessary disposition should obey these rules; and it would, in many cases, be desirable that everybody should have this disposition. But it should be recognised that, when we regard a thing as a moral rule or law, we mean that it is one which almost everybody can observe by an effort of volition, in that state of society to which the rule is supposed to apply. (2) Actions are often advocated, of which, though they themselves are possible, yet the proposed good effects are not possible, because the conditions necessary for their existence are not sufficiently general. A rule, of which the observance would produce good effects, if human nature were in other respects different from what it is, is advocated as if its general observance would produce the same effects now and at once. In fact, however, by the time that the conditions necessary to make its observance useful have arisen, it is quite as likely that other conditions, rendering its observance unnecessary or positively harmful, may also have arisen; and yet this state of things may be a better one than that in which the rule in question would have been useful. (3) There also occurs the case in which the usefulness of a rule depends upon conditions likely to change, or of which the change would be as easy and more desirable than the observance of the proposed rule. It may even happen that the general observance of the proposed rule would itself destroy the conditions upon which its utility depends.
One or other of these objections seems generally to apply to proposed changes in social custom, advocated as being better rules to follow than those now actually followed; and, for this reason, it seems doubtful whether Ethics can establish the utility of any rules other than those generally practised. But the inability to do so is fortunately of little practical moment. The question whether the general observance of a rule not generally observed, would or would not be desirable, cannot much affect the question how any individual ought to act; since, on the one hand, there is a large probability that he will not, by any means, be able to bring about its general observance, and, on the other hand, the fact that its general observance would be useful could, in any case, give him no reason to conclude that he himself ought to observe it, in the absence of such general observance.
With regard, then, to the actions commonly classed in Ethics, as duties, crimes, or sins, the following points seem deserving of notice. (1) By so classing them we mean that they are actions which it is possible for an individual to perform or avoid, if he only wills to do so; and that they are actions which everybody ought to perform or avoid, when occasion arises. (2) We can certainly not prove of any such action that it ought to be done or avoided under all circumstances; we can only prove that its performance or avoidance will generally produce better results than the alternative. (3) If further we ask of what actions as much as this can be proved, it seems only possible to prove it with regard to those which are actually generally practised among us. And of these some only are such that their general performance would be useful in any state of society that seems possible; of others the utility depends upon conditions which exist now, but which seem to be more or less alterable.
99. (d) So much, then, for moral rules or laws, in the ordinary sense—rules which assert that it is generally useful, under more or less common circumstances, for everybody to perform or omit some definite kind of action. It remains to say something with regard to the principles by which the individual should decide what he ought to do, (α) with regard to those actions as to which some general rule is certainly true, and (β) with regard to those where such a certain rule is wanting.
(α) Since, as I have tried to shew, it is impossible to establish that any kind of action will produce a better total result than its alternative in all cases, it follows that in some cases the neglect of an established rule will probably be the best course of action possible. The question then arises: Can the individual ever be justified in assuming that his is one of these exceptional cases? And it seems that this question may be definitely answered in the negative. For, if it is certain that in a large majority of cases the observance of a certain rule is useful, it follows that there is a large probability that it would be wrong to break the rule in any particular case; and the uncertainty of our knowledge both of effects and of their value, in particular cases, is so great, that it seems doubtful whether the individual’s judgment that the effects will probably be good in his case can ever be sent against the general probability that that kind of action is wrong. Added to this general ignorance is the fact that, if the question arises at all, our judgment will generally be biased by the fact that we strongly desire one of the results which we hope to obtain by breaking the rule. It seems, then, that with regard to any rule which is generally useful, we may assert that it ought always to be observed, not on the ground that in every particular case it will be useful, but on the ground that in any particular case the probability of its being so is greater than that of our being likely to decide rightly that we have before us an instance of its disutility. In short, though we may be sure that there are cases where the rule should be broken, we can never know which those cases are, and ought, therefore, never to break it. It is this fact which seems to justify the stringency with which moral rules are usually enforced and sanctioned, and to give a sense in which we may accept as true the maxims that ‘The end never justifies the means’ and ‘That we should never do evil that good may come.’ The ‘means’ and the ‘evil,’ intended by these maxims, are, in fact, the breaking of moral rules generally recognised and practised, and which, therefore, we may assume to be generally useful. Thus understood, these maxims merely point out that, in any particular case, although we cannot clearly perceive any balance of good produced by keeping the rule and do seem to see one that would follow from breaking it, nevertheless the rule should be observed. It is hardly necessary to point out that this is so only because it is certain that, in general, the end does justify the means in question, and that therefore there is a probability that in this case it will do so also, although we cannot see that it will.
But moreover the universal observance of a rule which is generally useful has, in many cases, a special utility, which seems deserving of notice. This arises from the fact that, even if we can clearly discern that our case is one where to break the rule is advantageous, yet, so far as our example has any effect at all in encouraging similar action, it will certainly tend to encourage breaches of the rule which are not advantageous. We may confidently assume that what will impress the imagination of others will not be the circumstances in which our case differs from ordinary cases and which justify our exceptional action, but the points in which it resembles other actions that are really criminal. In cases, then, where example has any influence at all, the effect of an exceptional right action will generally be to encourage wrong ones. And this effect will probably be exercised not only on other persons but on the agent himself. For it is impossible for any one to keep his intellect and sentiments so clear, but that, if he has once approved of a generally wrong action, he will be more likely to approve of it also under other circumstances than those which justified it in the first instance. This inability to discriminate exceptional cases offers, of course, a still stronger reason for the universal enforcement, by legal or social sanctions, of actions generally useful. It is undoubtedly well to punish a man, who has done an action, right in his case but generally wrong, even if his example would not be likely to have a dangerous effect. For sanctions have, in general, much more influence upon conduct than example; so that the effect of relaxing them in an exceptional case will almost certainly be an encouragement of similar action in cases which are not exceptional.
The individual can therefore be confidently recommended always to conform to rules which are both generally useful and generally practised. In the case of rules of which the general observance would be useful but does not exist, or of rules which are generally practised but which are not useful, no such universal recommendations can be made. In many cases the sanctions attached may be decisive in favor of conformity to the existing custom. But it seems worth pointing out that, even apart from these, the general utility of an action most commonly depends upon the fact that it is generally practised: in a society where certain kinds of theft are the common rule, the utility of abstinence from such theft on the part of a single individual becomes exceedingly doubtful, even though the common rule is a bad one. There is, therefore, a strong probability in favour of adherence to an existing custom, even if it be a bad one. But we cannot, in this case, assert with any confidence that this probability is always greater than that of the individual’s power to judge that an exception will be useful; since we are here supposing certain one relevant fact—namely, that the rule, which he proposes to follow, would be better than that which he proposes to break, if it were generally observed. Consequently the effect of his example, so far as it tends to break down the existing custom, will here be for the good. The cases, where another rule would certainly be better than that generally observed, are, however, according to what was said above, very rare; and cases of doubt, which are those which arise most frequently, carry us into the next division of our subject.
100. (β) This next division consists in the discussion of the method by which an individual should decide what to do with regard to possible actions of which the general utility cannot be proved. And it should be observed, that, according to our previous conclusions, this discussion will cover almost all actions, except those which, in our present state of society, are generally practised. For it has been urged that a proof of general utility is so difficult, that it can hardly be conclusive except in a very few cases. It is certainly not possible with regard to all actions which are generally practised; though here, if the sanctions are sufficiently strong, they are sufficient by themselves to prove the general utility of the individual’s conformity to custom. And if it is possible to prove a general utility in the case of some actions, not generally practised, it is certainly not possible to do so by the ordinary method, which tries to shew in them a tendency to that preservation of society, which is itself a mere means, but only by the method, by which in any case, as will be urged, the individual ought to guide his judgment—namely, by shewing their direct tendency to produce what is good in itself or to prevent what is bad.
The extreme improbability that any general rule with regard to the utility of an action will be correct seems, in fact, to be the chief principle which should be taken into account in discussing how the individual should guide his choice. If we except those rules which are both generally practised and strongly sanctioned among us, there seem to be hardly any of such a kind that equally good arguments cannot be found both for and against them. The most that can be said for the contradictory principles which are urged by moralists of different schools as universal duties is, in general, that they point out actions which, for persons of a particular character and in particular circumstances, would and do lead to a balance of good. It is, no doubt, possible that the particular dispositions and circumstances which generally render certain kinds of action advisable, might to some degree be formulated. But it is certain that this has never yet been done; and it is important to notice that, even if it were done, it would not give us, what moral laws are usually supposed to be—rules which it would be desirable for every one, or even for most people, to follow. Moralists commonly assume that, in the matter of actions or habits of action, usually recognised as duties or virtues, it is desirable that every one should be alike. Whereas it is certain that, under actual circumstances, and possible that, even in a much more ideal condition of things, the principle of division of labour, according to special capacity, which is recognised in respect of employments, would also give a better result in respect of virtues.
It seems, therefore, that, in cases of doubt, instead of following rules, of which he is unable to see the good effects in his particular case, the individual should rather guide his choice by a direct consideration of the intrinsic value or vilness of the effects which his action may produce. Judgments of intrinsic value have this superiority over judgments of means that, if once true, they are always true; whereas what is a means to a good effect in one case, will not be so in another. For this reason the department of Ethics, which it would be most useful to elaborate for practical guidance, is that which discusses what things have intrinsic value and in what degrees; and this is precisely that department which has been most uniformly neglected, in favour of attempts to formulate rules of conduct.
We have, however, not only to consider the relative goodness of different effects, but also the relative probability of their being attained. A less good, that is more likely to be attained, is to be preferred to a greater, that is less probable, if the difference in probability is great enough to outwiegh the difference in goodness. And this fact seems to entitle us to assert the general truth of three principles, which ordinary moral rules are apt to neglect. (1) That a lesser good, for which any individual has a strong preference (if only it be a good, and not an evil), is more likely to be a proper object for him to aim at, than a greater one, which he is unable to appreciate. For natural inclination renders it immensely more easy to attain that for which such inclination is felt. (2) Since almost every one has a much stronger preference for things which closely concern himself, it will in general be right for a man to aim rather at goods affecting himself and those in whom he has a strong personal interest, than to attempt a more extended beneficence. Egoism is undoubtedly superior to Altruism as a doctrine of means: in the immense majority of cases the best thing we can do is to aim at securing some good in which we are concerned, since for that very reason we are far more likely to secure it. (3) Goods, which can be secured in a future so near as to be called ‘the present,’ are in general to be preferred to those which, being in a further future, are, for that reason, far less certain of attainment. If that is to say as a mere means to good, we are apt to neglect one fact, at least, which is certain; namely that a thing that is really good in itself, if it exist now, has precisely the same value as a thing of the same kind which may be caused to exist in the future. Moreover moral rules, as has been said, are, in general, not directly means to positive goods but to what is necessary for the existence of positive goods; and so much of our labour must in any case be devoted to securing the continuance of what is thus a mere means—the claims of industry and attention to health determine the employment of so large a part of our time, that, in cases where choice is open, the certain attainment of a present good will in general have the strongest claims upon us. If it were not so, the whole of life would be spent in merely assuring its continuance; and, so far as the same rule were continued in the future, that for the sake of which it is worth having, would never exist at all.
101. (4) A fourth conclusion, which follows from the fact that what is ‘right’ or what is our ‘duty’ must in any case be defined as what is a means to good, is, as was pointed out above (§ 89), that the common distinction between these and the ‘expedient’ or ‘useful,’ disappears. Our ‘duty’ is merely that which will be a means to the best possible, and the expedient, if it is really expedient, must be just the same. We cannot distinguish them by saying that the former is something which we ought to do, whereas of the latter we cannot say we ‘ought.’ In short the two concepts are not, as is commonly assumed by all except Utilitarian moralists, simple concepts ultimately distinct. There is no such distinction in Ethics. The only fundamental distinction is between what is good in itself and what is good as a means, the latter of which implies the former. But it has been shewn that the distinction between ‘duty’ and ‘expediency’ does not correspond to this: both must be defined as means to good, though both may also be ends in themselves. The question remains, then: What is the distinction between duty and expediency?
One distinction to which these distinct words refer is plain enough. Certain classes of action commonly excite the specifically moral sentiments, whereas other classes do not. And the word ‘duty’ is commonly applied only to the class of actions which excite moral approval, or of which the omission excites moral disapproval—especially to the latter. Why this moral sentiment should have become attached to some kinds of actions and not to others is a question which certainly not yet be answered; but it may be observed that we have no reason to think that the actions to which it was attached were or are, in all cases, such as aided or aid the survival of a race: it was probably originally attached to many religious rites and ceremonies which had not the smallest utility in this respect. It appears, however, that, among us, the classes of action to which it is attached also have two other characteristics in enough cases to have influenced the meaning of the words ‘duty’ and ‘expediency.’ One of these is that ‘duties’ are, in general, actions which a considerable number of individuals are strongly tempted to omit. The second is that the omission of ‘duty’ generally entails consequences markedly disagreeable to some one else. The first of these is a more univeral characteristic than the second: since the disagreeable effects on other people of the ‘self-regarding duties,’ prudence and temperance, are not so marked as those on the future of the agent himself; whereas the temptations to imprudence and intemperance are very strong. Still, on the whole, the class of actions called duties exhibit both characteristics: they are not only actions, against the performance of which there are strong natural inclinations, but also actions of which the most obvious effects, commonly considered goods, are effects on other people. Expedient actions, on the other hand, are actions to which strong natural inclinations prompt us almost universally, and of which all the most obvious effects, commonly considered good, are effects upon the agent. We may then roughly distinguish ‘duties’ from expedient actions, as actions with regard to which there is a moral sentiment, which we are often tempted to omit, and of which the most obvious effects are effects upon others than the agent.
But it is to be noticed that none of these characteristics, by which a ‘duty’ is distinguished from an expedient action, gives us any reason to infer that the former class of actions are more useful than the latter—that they tend to produce a greater balance of good. Nor, when we ask the question, ‘Is this my duty?’ do we mean to ask whether the action in question has these characteristics: we are asking simply whether it will produce the best possible result on the whole. And if we asked this question with regard to expedient actions, we should quite as often have to answer it in the affirmative as when we ask it with regard to actions which have the three characteristics of ‘duties.’ It is true that when we ask the question, ‘Is this expedient?’ we are making a different question—namely, whether it will have certain kinds of effect, with regard to which we do not enquire whether they are good or not. Nevertheless, if it should be doubted in any particular case whether these effects were good, this doubt is understood as throwing doubt upon the action’s expediency: if we are required to prove an action’s expediency, we can only do so by asking precisely the same question by which we should prove it a duty—namely, ‘Has it the best possible effects on the whole?’
Accordingly the question whether an action is a duty or merely expedient, is one which has no bearing on the ethical question whether we ought to do it. In the sense in which either duty or expediency are taken as ultimate reasons for doing an action, they are taken in exactly the same sense: if I ask whether an action is really my duty or really expedient, the predicate of which I question the applicability to the action in question is precisely the same. In both cases I am asking, ‘Is this event the best on the whole that I can effect?’; and whether the event in question be some effect upon what is mine (as it usually is, where we talk of expediency) or some other event (as is usual, where we talk of duty), this distinction has no more relevance to my answer than the distinction between two different effects on me or two different effects on others. The true distinction between duties and expedient actions is not that the former are actions which it is in any sense more useful or obligatory or better to perform, but that they are actions which it is more useful to praise and to enforce by sanctions, since they are actions which there is a temptation to omit.
102. With regard to ‘interested’ actions, the case is somewhat different. When we ask the question, ‘Is this really to my interest?’ we appear to be asking exclusively whether its effects upon me are the best possible; and it may well happen that what will effect me in the manner, which is really the best possible, will not produce the best possible results on the whole. Accordingly my true interest may be different from the course which is really expedient and dutiful. To assert that an action is ‘to my interest,’ is, indeed, as was pointed out in Chap. III. (§§ 59—61), to assert that its effects are really good. ‘My own good’ only denotes some event affecting me, which is good absolutely and objectively; it is the thing, and not its goodness, which is mine; everything must be either ‘a part of universal good’ or else not good at all; there is no third alternative conception ‘good for me.’ But ‘my interest,’ though it must be something truly good, is only one among possible good effects; and hence, by effecting it, though we shall be doing some good, we may be doing less good on the whole, than if we had acted otherwise. Self-sacrifice may be a real duty; just as the sacrifice of any single good, whether affecting ourselves or others, may be necessary in order to obtain a better total result. Hence the fact that an action is really to my interest, can never be a sufficient reason for doing it: by shewing that it is not a means to the best possible, we do not shew that it is not to my interest, as we do shew that it is not expedient. Nevertheless there is no necessary conflict between duty and interest: what is to my interest may also be a means to the best possible. And the chief distinction conveyed by the distinct words ‘duty’ and ‘interest’ seems to be not this source of possible conflict, but the same which is conveyed by the contrast between ‘duty’ and ‘expediency.’ By ‘interested’ actions are mainly meant those which, whether a means to the best possible or not, are such as have their most obvious effects on the agent; which he generally has no temptation to omit; and with regard to which we feel no moral sentiment. That is to say, the distinction is not primarily ethical. Here too ‘duties’ are not, in general, more useful or obligatory than interested actions; they are only actions which it is more useful to praise.
103. (5) A fifth conclusion, of some importance, in relation to Practical Ethics concerns the manner in which ‘virtues’ are to be judged. What is meant by calling a thing a ‘virtue’?
There can be no doubt that Aristotle’s definition is right, in the main, so far as he says that it is an ‘habitual disposition’ to perform certain actions: this is one of the marks by which we should distinguish a virtue from other things. But ‘virtue’ and ‘vice’ are also ethical terms: that is to say, when we use them seriously, we mean to convey praise by the one and dispraise by the other. And to praise a thing is to assert either that it is good in itself or else that it is a means to good. Are we then to include in our definition of virtue that it must be a thing good in itself?
Now it is certain that virtues are commonly regarded as good in themselves. The feeling of moral approbation with which we generally regard them partly consists in an attribution to them of intrinsic value. Even a Hedonist, when he feels a moral sentiment towards them, is regarding them as good-in-themselves; and Virtue has been the chief competitor with Pleasure for the position of sole good. Nevertheless I do not think we can regard it as part of the definition of virtue that it should be good in itself. For the name has so far an independent meaning, that if in any particular case a disposition commonly considered virtuous were proved not to be good in itself, we should not think that a sufficient reason for saying that it was not a virtue but was only thought to be so. The test for the ethical connotation of virtue is the same as that for duty: What should we required to be proved about a particular instance, in order to say that the name was wrongly applied to it? And the test which is thus applied both to virtues and to duties, and considered to be final, is the question: Is it a means to good? If it could be shewn of any particular disposition, commonly considered virtuous, that it was generally harmful, we should at once say: Then it is not really virtuous. Accordingly a virtue may be defined as an habitual disposition to perform certain actions, which generally produce the best possible results. Nor is there any doubt as to the kind of actions which it is ‘virtuous’ habitually to perform. They are, in general, those which are duties, with this modification that we also include those which would be duties, if only it were possible for people in general to perform them. Accordingly with regard to virtues, the same conclusion holds as with regard to duties. If they are really virtues they must be generally good as means; nor do I wish to dispute that most virtues, commonly considered as such, as well as most duties, really are means to good. But it does not follow that they are a bit more useful than those dispositions and inclinations which lead us to perform interested actions. As duties from expedient actions, so virtues are distinguished from other useful dispositions, which it is particularly useful to praise and to sanction, because there are strong and common temptations to neglect the actions to which they lead.
Virtues, therefore, are habitual dispositions to perform actions which are duties, or which would be duties if a volition were sufficient on the part of most men to ensure their performance. And duties are a particular class of those actions, of which the performance has, at least generally, better total results than the omission. They are, that is to say, actions generally good as means: but not all such actions are duties; the name is confined to that particular class which it is often difficult to perform, because there are strong temptations to the contrary. It follows that in order to decide whether any particular disposition or action is a virtue or a duty, we must face all the difficulties enumerated in section (3) of this chapter. We shall not be entitled to assert that any disposition or action is a virtue or duty except as a result of an investigation, such as was there described. We must be able to prove that the disposition or action in question is generally better as a means than any alternatives possible and likely to occur; and this we shall only be able to prove for particular states of society; and this we shall only be able to prove for particular states of society: what is a virtue or a duty in one state of society may not be so in another.
104. But there is another question with regard to virtues and duties which must be settled by intuition alone—by the properly guarded method which was explained in discussing Hedonism. This is the question whether the dispositions and actions, commonly regarded (rightly or not) as virtues or duties, are good in themselves; whether they have intrinsic value. Virtue or the exercise of virtue has very commonly been asserted by moralists to be either the sole good, or, at least, the best of goods. Indeed, so far as moralists have discussed the question what is good in itself at all, they have generally assumed that it must be either virtue or pleasure. It would hardly have been possible that such a gross difference of opinion should exist, or that it should have been assumed the discussion must be limited to two such alternatives, if the meaning of the question had been clearly apprehended. And we have already seen that the meaning of the question has hardly ever been clearly apprehended. Almost all ethical writers have committed the naturalistic fallacy—they have failed to perceive that the notion of intrinsic value is simple and unique; and almost all have failed, in consequence, to distinguish clearly between means and end—they have discussed, as if it were simple and unambiguous, the question ‘What ought we to do?’ or ‘What ought to exist now?’ without distinguishing whether the reason why a thing ought to be done or to exist now, is that it is itself possessed of intrinsic value, or that it is a means to what has intrinsic value. We shall, therefore, be prepared to find that virtue has as little claim to be considered the sole or chief good as pleasure; more especially after seeing that, so far as definition goes, to call a thing a virtue is merely to declare that it is a means to good. The advocates of virtue have, we shall see, this superiority over the Hedonists, that inasmuch as virtues are very complex mental facts, there are included in them many things which are good in themselves and good in a much higher degree than pleasures. The advocates of Hedonism, on the other hand, have the superiority that their method emphasizes the distinction between means and ends; although they have not apprehended the distinction clearly enough to perceive that the special ethical predicate, which they assign to pleasure as not being a mere means, must also apply to many other things.
105. With regard, then, to the intrinsic value of virtue, it may be stated broadly: (1) that the majority of dispositions, which we call by that name, and which really do conform to the definition, so far as that they are dispositions generally valuable as means, at least in our society, have no intrinsic value whatever; and (2) that no one element which is contained in the minority, nor even all the different elements put together, can without gross absurdity be regarded as the sole good. As to the second point it may be observed that even those who hold the view that the sole good is to be found in virtue, almost invariably hold other views contradictory of this, owing chiefly to a failure to analyse the meaning of ethical concepts. The most marked instance of this inconsistency is to be found in the common Christian conception that virtue, though the sole good, can yet be rewarded by something other than virtue. Heaven is commonly considered as the reward of virtue; and yet it is also commonly considered, that, in order to be such a reward, it must contain some element, called happiness, which is certainly not completely identical with the mere exercise of those virtues which it rewards. But if so, then something which is not virtue must be either good in itself or an element in what has most intrinsic value. It is not commonly observed that if a thing is really to be a reward, it must be something good in itself: it is absurd to talk of rewarding a person by giving him something, which is less valuable than what he already has or which has no value at all. Thus Kant’s view that virtue renders us worthy of happiness is in flagrant contradiction with the view, which he implies and which is associated with his name, that a Good Will is the only thing having intrinsic value. It does not, indeed, entitle us to make the charge sometimes made, that Kant is, inconsistently, an Eudaemonist or Hedonist: for it does not imply that happiness is the sole good. But it does imply that the Good Will is not the sole good: that a state of things in which we are both virtuous and happy is better in itself than one in which the happiness is absent.
106. In order, however, justly to consider the claims of virtue to intrinsic value, it is necessary to distinguish several very different mental states, all of which fall under the general definition that they are habitual dispositions to perform duties. We may thus distinguish three very different states, all of which are liable to be confused with one another, upon each of which different moral systems have laid great stress, and for each of which the claim has been made that it alone constitutes virtue, and, by implication, that it is the sole good. We may first of all distinguish between (a) that permanent characteristic of mind, which consists in the fact that the performance of duty has become in the strict sense a habit, like many of the operations performed in the putting on of clothes, and (b) that permanent characteristic, which consists in the fact that what may be called good motives habitually help to cause the performance of duties. And in the second division we may distinguish between the habitual tendency to be actuated by one motive, namely, the desire to do duty for duty’s sake, and all other motives, such as love, benevolence, etc. We thus get the three kinds of virtue, of which we are now to consider the intrinsic value.
(a) There is no doubt that a man’s character may be such that he habitually performs certain duties, without the thought ever occurring to him, when he wills them, either that they are duties or that any good will result from them. Of such a man we cannot and do not refuse to say that he possesses the virtue consisting in the disposition to perform those duties. I, for instance, am honest in the sense that I habitually abstain from any of the actions legally qualified as thieving, even where some other persons would be strongly tempted to commit them. It would be grossly contrary to common usage to deny that, for this reason, I really have the virtue of honesty: it is quite certain that I have an habitual disposition to perform a duty. And that as many people as possible should have a like disposition is, no doubt, of great utility: it is good as a means. Yet I may safely assert that neither my various performances of this duty, nor my disposition to perform them, have the smallest intrinsic value. It is because the majority of instances of virtue seem to be of this nature, that we may venture to assert that virtues have, in general, no intrinsic value whatsoever. And there seems to be good reason to think that the more generally they are of this nature the more useful they are; since a great economy of labour is effected when a useful action becomes habitual or instinctive. But to maintain that a virtue which includes no more than this, is good in itself is a gross absurdity. And of this gross absurdity, it may be observed, the Ethics of Aristotle is guilty. For his definition of virtue does not exclude a disposition to perform actions in this way, whereas his descriptions of the particular virtues plainly include such actions: that an action, in order to exhibit virtue, must be done τοϋ καλοϋ ένεκα is a qualification which he allows often to drop out of sight. And, on the other hand, he seems certainly to regard the exercise of all virtues as an end in itself. His treatment of Ethics is indeed, in the most important points, highly unsystematic and confused, owing to his attempt to base it on the naturalistic fallacy; for strictly we should be obliged by his words to regard θεωπία as the only thing good in itself, in which case the goodness which he attributes to the practical virtues cannot be intrinsic value; while on the other hand he does not seem to regard it merely as utility, since he makes no attempt to shew that they are means to θεωπία. But there seems no doubt that on the whole he regards the exercise of the practical virtues as a good of the same kind as (i.e. having intrinsic value), only in a less degree than, θεωπία; so that he cannot avoid the charge that he recommends as having intrinsic value, such instances of the exercise of virtue as we are at present discussing—instances of a disposition to perform actions which, in the modern phrase, have merely an ‘external rightness.’ That he is right in applying the word ‘virtue’ to such a disposition cannot be doubted. But the protest against the view that ‘external rightness’ is sufficient to constitute either ‘duty’ or ‘virtue’—a protest which is commonly, and with some justice, attributed as a merit to Christian morals—seems, in the main, to be a mistaken way of pointing out an important truth: namely, that where there is only ‘external rightness’ there is certainly no intrinsic value. It is commonly assumed (though wrongly) that to call a thing a virtue means that it has intrinsic value: and on this assumption the view that virtue does not consist in a mere disposition to do externally right actions does really constitute an advance in ethical truth beyond the Ethics of Aristotle. The inference that, if virtue includes in its meaning ‘good in itself,’ then Aristotle’s definition of virtue is not adequate and expresses a false ethical judgment, is perfectly correct: only the premise that virtue does include this in its meaning is mistaken.
107. (b) A man’s character may be such that, when he habitually performs a particular duty, there is, in each case of his performance, present in his mind, a love of some intrinsically good consequence which he expects to produce by his action or a hatred of some intrinsically evil consequence which he hopes to prevent by it. In such a case this love or hatred will generally be part cause of his action, and we may then call it one of his motives. Where such a feeling as this is present habitually in the performance of duties, it cannot be denied that the state of the man’s mind, in performing it, contains something intrinsically good. Nor can it be denied that, where a disposition to perform duties consists in the disposition to be moved to them by such feelings, we call that disposition a virtue. Here, therefore, we have instances of virtue, the exercise of which really contains something that is good in itself. And, in general, we may say that wherever a virtue does consist in a disposition to have certain motives, the exercise of that virtue may be intrinsically good; although the degree of its goodness may vary indefinitely according to the precise nature of the motives and their objects. In so far, then, as Christianity tends to emphasize the importance of motives, of the ‘inward’ disposition with which a right action is done, we may say that it has done a service to Ethics. But it should be noticed that, when Christian Ethics, as represented by the New Testament, are praised for this, two distinctions of the utmost importance, which they entirely neglect, are very commonly overlooked. In the first place the New Testament is largely occupied with continuing the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, by recommending such virtues as ‘justice’ and ‘mercy’ as against mere ritual observances; and, in so far as it does this, it is recommending virtues which may be merely good as means, exactly like the Aristotelian virtues. This characteristic of its teaching must therefore be rigorously distinguished from that which consists in its enforcement of such a view as that to be angry without a cause is as bad as actually to commit murder. And, in the second place, though the New Testament does praise some things which are only good as means, and others which are good in themselves, it entirely fails to recognise the distinction. Though the state of the man who is angry may be really as bad in itself as that of the murderer, and so far Christ may be right, His language would lead us to suppose that it is also as bad in every way, that it also causes as much evil: and this is utterly false. In short, when Christian Ethics approves, it does not distinguish whether its approval asserts ‘This is a means to good’ or ‘This is good in itself’; and hence it both praises things merely good as means, as if they were good in themselves, and things merely good in themselves as if they were also good as means. Moreover it should be noticed, that if Christian Ethics does draw attention to those elements in virtues which are good in themselves, it is by no means alone in this. The Ethics of Plato are distinguished by upholding, far more clearly and consistently than any other system, the view that intrinsic value belongs exclusively to those states of mind which consist in love of what is good or hatred of what is evil.
108. But (c) the Ethics of Christianity are distinguished from those of Plato by emphasizing the value of one particular motive—that which consists in the emotion excited by the idea, not of any intrinsically good consequences of the action in question, nor even of the action itself, but by that of its rightness. This idea of abstract ‘rightness’ and the various degrees of the specific emotion excited by it are what constitute the specifically ‘moral sentiment’ or ‘conscience.’ An action seems to be most properly termed ‘internally right,’ solely in virtue of the fact that the agent has previously regarded it as right: the idea of ‘rightness’ must have been present to his mind, but need not necessarily have been among his motives. And we mean by a ‘conscientious’ man, one who, when he deliberates, always has this idea in his mind, and does not act until he believes that his action is right.
The presence of this idea and its action as a motive certainly seem to have become more common objects of notice and commendation owing to the influence of Christianity; but it is important to observe that there is no ground for the view, which Kant implies, that it is the only motive which the New Testament regards as intrinsically valuable. There seems little doubt that when Christ tells us to ‘Love our neighbours as ourselves,’ He did not mean merely what Kant calls ‘practical love’—beneficience of which the sole motive is the idea of its rightness or the emotion caused by that idea. Among the ‘inward dispositions’ of which the New Testament inculcates the value, there are certainly included what Kant terms mere ‘natural inclinations,’ such as pity, etc.
But what are we to say of virtue, when it consists in a disposition to be moved to the performance of duties by this idea? It seems difficult to deny that the emotion excited by rightness as such has some intrinsic value; and still more difficult to deny that its presence may heighten the value of some wholes into which it enters. But, on the other hand, it certainly has not more value than many of the motives treated in our last section—emotions of love towards things really good in themselves. And as for Kant’s implication that it is the sole good, this is inconsistent with other of his own views. For he certainly regards it as better to perform the actions, to which he maintains that it prompts us—namely, ‘material’ duties—than to omit them. But, if better at all, then, these actions must be better either in themselves or as a means. The former hypothesis would directly contradict the statement that this motive was sole good, and the latter is excluded by Kant himself since he maintains that no actions can cause the existence of this motive. And it may also be observed that the other claim which he makes for it, namely, that it is always good as a means, can also not be maintained. It is as certain as anything can be that very harmful actions may be done from conscientious motives; and that Conscience does not always tell us the truth about what actions are right. Nor can it be maintained even that it is more useful than many other motives. All that can be admitted is that it is one of the things which are generally useful.
What more I have to say with regard to those elements in some virtues which are good in themselves, and with regard to their relative degrees of excellence, as well as the proof that all of them together cannot be the sole good, may be deferred to the next chapter.
109. The main points in this chapter, to which I desire to direct attention, may be summarized as follows:—(1) I first pointed out how the subject-matter with which it deals, namely, ethical judgments on conduct, involves a question, utterly different in kind from the two previously discussed, namely: (a) What is the nature of the predicate peculiar to Ethics? and (b) What kinds of things themselves possess this predicate? Practical Ethics asks, not ‘What ought to be?’ but ‘What ought we to do?’; it asks what actions are duties, what actions are right, and what wrong: and all these questions can only be answered by shewing the relation of the actions in question, as causes or necessary conditions, to what is good in itself. The enquiries of Practical Ethics thus fall entirely under the third division of ethical questions—questions which ask, ‘What is good as a means?’ which is equivalent to ‘What is a means to good—what is cause or necessary condition of things good in themselves?’ (86—88). But (2) it asks this question, almost exclusively, with regard to actions which it is possible for most men to perform, if only they will them; and with regard to these, it does not ask merely, which among them will have some good or bad result, but which, among all the actions possible to volition at any moment, will produce the best total result. To assert that an action is a duty, is to assert that it is such a possible action, which will always, in certain known circumstances, produce better results than any other. It follows that universal propositions of which duty is predicate, so far from being self-evident, always require a proof, which it is beyond our present means of knowledge ever to give (89—92). But (3) all that Ethics has attempted or can attempt, is to shew that certain actions, possible by volition, generally produce better or worse total results than any probable alternative: and it must obviously be very difficult to shew this with regard to the total results even in a comparatively near future; whereas that what has the best results in such a near future, also has the best on the whole, is a point requiring an investigation which it has not received. If it is true, and if, accordingly, we give the name of ‘duty’ to actions which generally produce better total results in the near future than any possible alternative, it may be possible to prove that a few of the commonest rules of duty are true, but only in certain conditions of society, which may be more or less universally presented in history; and such a proof is only possible in some cases without a correct judgment of what things are good or bad in themselves—a judgment which has never yet been offered by ethical writers. With regard to actions of which the general utility is thus proved, the individual should always perform them; but in other cases, where rules are commonly offered, he should rather judge of the probable results in his particular case, guided by a correct conception of what things are intriniscally good or bad (93—100). (4) In order that any action may be shewn to be a duty, it must be shewn to fulfil the above conditions; but the actions commonly called ‘duties’ do not fulfil them to any greater extent than ‘expedient’ or ‘interested’ actions: by calling them ‘duties’ we only mean that they have, in addition, certain non-ethical predicates. Similarly by ‘virtue’ is mainly meant a permanent disposition to perform ‘duties’ in this restricted sense: and accordingly a virtue, if it is really a virtue, must be good as a means, in the sense that it fulfils the above conditions; but it is not better as a means than non-virtuous dispositions; it generally has no value in itself; and, where it has, it is far from being the sole good or the best of goods. Accordingly ‘virtue’ is not, as is commonly implied, an unique ethical predicate (101—109).
- This sense of the term must be carefully distinguished from that in which the agent’s intention may be said to be ‘right,’ if only the results he intended would have been the best possible.
- Kant, so far as I know, never expressly states this view, but it is implied e.g. in his argument against Heteronomy.