Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 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. (§ 95 ¶ 1)

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. (§ 95 ¶ 2)

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. (§ 95 ¶ 3)

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. (§ 95 ¶ 4)