Chapter I: The Subject-Matter of Ethics.

§ 14.

Good, then, is indefinable; and yet, so far as I know, there is only one ethical writer, Prof. Henry Sidgwick, who has clearly recognised and stated this fact. We shall see, indeed, how far many of the most reputed ethical systems fall short of drawing the conclusions which follow from such a recognition. At present I will only quote from one instance, which will serve to illustrate the meaning and importance of this principle that good is indefinable, or, as Prof. Sidgwick says, an unanalysable notion. It is an instance to which Prof. Sidgwick himself refers in a note on the passage, in which he argues that ought is unanalysable. (§ 14 ¶ 1)

Bentham, says Sidgwick, explains that his fundamental principle states the greatest happiness of all those whose interest is in question as being the right and proper end of human action; and yet his language in other passages of the same chapter would seem to imply that he means by the word right conducive to the general happiness. Prof. Sidgwick sees that, if you take these two statements together, you get the absurd result that greatest happiness is the end of human action, which is conducive to the general happiness; and so absurd does it seem to him to call this result, as Bentham calls it, the fundamental principle of a moral system, that he suggests that Bentham cannot have meant it. Yet Prof. Sidgwick himself states elsewhere that Psychological Hedonism is not seldom confounded with Egoistic Hedonism; and that confusion, as we shall see, rests chiefly on that same fallacy, the naturalistic fallacy, which is implied in Bentham’s statements. Prof. Sidgwick admits therefore that this fallacy is sometimes committed, absurd as it is; and I am inclined to think that Bentham may really have been one of those who committed it. Mill, as we shall see, certainly did commit it. In any case, whether Bentham committed it or not, his doctrine, as above quoted, will serve as a very good illustration of this fallacy, and of the importance of the contrary proposition that good is indefinable. (§ 14 ¶ 2)

Let us consider this doctrine. Bentham seems to imply, so Prof. Sidgwick says, that the word right means conducive to general happiness. Now this, by itself, need not necessarily involve the naturalistic fallacy. For the word right is very commonly appropriated to actions which lead to the attainment of what is good; which are regarded as means to the ideal and not as ends-in-themselves. This use of right, as denoting what is good as a means, whether or not it also be good as an end, is indeed the use to which I shall confine the word. Had Bentham been using right in this sense, it might be perfectly consistent for him to define right as conducive to the general happiness provided only (and note this proviso) he had already proved, or laid down as an axiom, that general happiness was the good, or (what is equivalent to this) that general happiness alone was good. For in that case he would have already defined the good as general happiness (a position perfectly consistent, we have seen, with the contention that good is indefinable), and, since right was to be defined as conducive to the good, it would actually mean conducive to general happiness. But this method of escape from the charge of having committed the naturalistic fallacy has been closed by Bentham himself. For his fundamental principle is, we see, that the greatest happiness of all concerned is the right and proper end of human action. He applies the word right, therefore, to the end, as such, not only to the means which are conducive to it; and that being so, right can no longer be defined as conducive to the general happiness, without involving the fallacy in question. For now it is obvious that the definition of right as conducive to general happiness can be used by him in support of the fundamental principle that general happiness is the right end; instead of being itself derived from that principle. If right, by definition, means conducive to general happiness, then it is obvious that general happiness is the right end. It is not necessary now first to prove or assert that general happiness is the right end, before right is defined as conducive to general happiness—a perfectly valid procedure; but on the contrary the definition of right as conducive to general happiness proves general happiness to be the right end—a perfectly invalid procedure, since in this case the statement that general happiness is the right end of human action is not an ethical principle at all, but either, as we have seen, a proposition about the meaning of words, or else a proposition about the nature of general happiness, not about its rightness or its goodness. (§ 14 ¶ 3)

Now, I do not wish the importance I assign to this fallacy to be misunderstood. The discovery of it does not at all refute Bentham’s contention that greatest happiness is the proper end of human action, if that be understood as an ethical proposition, as he undoubtedly intended it. That principle may be true all the same; we shall consider whether it is so in the succeeding chapters. Bentham might have maintained it, as Prof. Sidgwick does, even if the fallacy had been pointed out to him. What I am maintaining is that the reasons which he actually gives for his ethical proposition are fallacious ones so far as they consist in a definition of right. What I suggest is that he did not perceive them to be fallacious; that, if he had done so, he would have been led to seek for other reasons in support of his Utilitarianism; and that, had he sought for other reasons, he might have found none which he thought to be sufficient. In that case he would have changed his whole system—a most important consequence. It is undoubtedly also possible that he would have thought other reasons to be sufficient, and in that case his ethical system, in its main results, would still have stood. But, even in this latter case, his use of the fallacy would be a serious objection to him as an ethical philosopher. For it is the business of Ethics, I must insist, not only to obtain true results, but also to find valid reasons for them. The direct object of Ethics is knowledge and not practice; and any one who uses the naturalistic fallacy has certainly not fulfilled this first object, however correct his practical principles may be. (§ 14 ¶ 4)

My objections to Naturalism are then, in the first place, that it offers no reason at all, far less any valid reason, for any ethical principle whatever; and in this it already fails to satisfy the requirements of Ethics, as a scientific study. But in the second place I contend that, though it gives a reason for no ethical principle, it is the cause of the acceptance of false principles—it deludes the mind into accepting ethical principles, which are false; and in this it is contrary to every aim of Ethics. It is easy to see that if we start with a definition of right conduct as conduct conducive to general happiness; then, knowing that right conduct is universally conduct conducive to the good, we very easily arrive at the result that the good is general happiness. If, on the other hand, we once recognise that we must start our Ethics without a definition, we shall be much more apt to look about us, before we adopt any ethical principle whatever, and the more we look about us, the less likely we are to adopt a false one. It may be replied to this: Yes, but we shall look about us just as much, before we settle on our definition, and are therefore just as likely to be right. But I will try to shew that this is not the case. If we start with the conviction that a definition of good can be found, we start with the conviction that the good can mean nothing else than some one property of things, and our only business will then be to discover what that property is. But if we recognise that, so far as the meaning of good goes, anything whatever may be good, we start with a much more open mind. Moreover, apart from the fact that, when we think we have a definition, we cannot logically defend our ethical principles in any way whatever, we shall also be much less apt to defend them well, even if illogically. For we shall start with the conviction that good must mean so and so, and shall therefore be inclined either to misunderstand our opponent’s arguments or to cut them short with the reply, This is not an open question: the very meaning of the word decides it; no one can think otherwise except through confusion. (§ 14 ¶ 5)