Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 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). (§ 109 ¶ 1)