Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 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. (§ 100 ¶ 1)

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. (§ 100 ¶ 2)

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. (§ 100 ¶ 3)

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. (§ 100 ¶ 4)