Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 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? (§ 101 ¶ 1)

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. (§ 101 ¶ 2)

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? (§ 101 ¶ 3)

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. (§ 101 ¶ 4)

§ 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. (§ 102 ¶ 1)

§ 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? (§ 103 ¶ 1)

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? (§ 103 ¶ 2)

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. (§ 103 ¶ 3)

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. (§ 103 ¶ 3)

§ 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. (§ 104 ¶ 1)

§ 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. (§ 105 ¶ 1)

§ 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. (§ 106 ¶ 1)

(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 τοῦ καλοῦ ἓνεκα 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. (§ 106 ¶ 2)

§ 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. (§ 107 ¶ 1)

§ 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. (§ 108 ¶ 1)

§ 108, n. 1: 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.

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. (§ 108 ¶ 2)

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. (§ 108 ¶ 3)

§ 108, n. 2: Kant, so far as I know, never expressly states this view, but it is implied e.g. in his argument against Heteronomy.

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. (§ 108 ¶ 4)

§ 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)