Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 93.

But (3) it is plain that even this is a task of immense difficulty. It is difficult to see how we can establish even a probability that by doing one thing we shall obtain a better total result than by doing another. I shall merely endeavour to point out how much is assumed, when we assume that there is such a probability, and on what lines it seems possible that this assumption may be justified—that no sufficient reason has ever yet been found for considering one action more right or more wrong than another. (§ 93 ¶ 1)

(a) The first difficulty in the way of establishing a probability that one course of action will give a better total result than another, lies in the fact that we have to take account of the effects of both throughout an infinite future. We have no certainty but that, if we do one action now, the Universe will, throughout all time, differ in some way from what it would have been, if we had done another; and, if there is such a permanent difference, it is certainly relevant to our calculation. But it is quite certain that our causal knowledge is utterly insufficient to tell us what different effects will probably result from two different actions, except within a comparatively short space of time; we can certainly only pretend to calculate the effects of actions within what may be called an immediate future. No one, when he proceeds upon what he considers a rational consideration of effects, would guide his choice by any forecast that went beyond a few centuries at most; and, in general, we consider that we have acted rationally, if we think we have secured a balance of good within a few years or months or days. Yet, if a choice guided by such considerations is to be rational, we must certainly have some reason to believe that no consequences of our action in a further future will generally be such as to reverse the balance of good that is probable in the future which we can forsee. This large postulate must be made, if we are ever to assert that the results of one action will be even probably better than those of another. Our utter ignorance of the far future gives us no justification for saying that it is even probably right to choose the greater good within the region over which a probable forecast may extend. We do, then, assume that it is improbable that effects, after a certain time, will, in general, be such as to reverse the comparative value of the alternative results within that time. And that this assumption is justified must be shewn before we can claim to have given any reason whatever for acting in one way rather than in another. It may, perhaps, be justified by some such considerations as the following. As we proceed further and further from the time at which alternative actions are open to us, the events of which either action would be part cause become increasingly dependent on those other circumstances, which are the same, whichever action we adopt. The effects of any individual action seem, after a sufficient space of time, to be found only in trifling modifications spread over a very wide area, whereas its immediate effects consist in some prominent modification of a comparatively narrow area. Since, however, most of the things which have any great importance for good or evil are things of this prominent kind, there may be a probability that after a certain time all the effects of any particular action become so nearly indifferent, that any difference between their value and that of the effects of another action, is very unlikely to outweigh an obvious difference in the value of the immediate effects. It does in fact appear to be the case that, in most cases, whatever action we now adopt, it will be all the same a hundred years hence, so far as the existence at that time of anything greatly good or bad is concerned: and this might, perhaps, be shewn to be true, by an investigation of the manner in which the effects of any particular event become neutralsed by lapse of time. Failing such a proof, we can certainly have no rational ground for asserting that one of two alternatives is even probably right another wrong. If any of our judgments of right and wrong are to pretend to probability, we must have reason to think that the effects of our actions in the far future will not have value sufficient to outweigh any superiority of one set of effects over another in the immediate future. (§ 93 ¶ 2)

§ 94.

(b) We must assume, then, that if the effects of one action are generally better than those of another, so far forward in the future as we are able to forsee any probable difference in their effects at all, then the total effect upon the Universe of the former action is also generally better. We certainly cannot hope directly to compare their effects except within a limited future; and all the arguments, which have ever been used in Ethics, and upon which we commonly act in common life, directed to shewing that one course is superior to another, are (apart from theological dogmas) confined to pointing out such probable immediate advantages. The question remains then; Can we lay down any general rules to the effect that one among a few alternative actions will generally produce a greater total of good in the immediate future? (§ 94 ¶ 1)

It is important to insist that this question, limited as it is, is the utmost, to which, with any knowledge we have at present or are likely to have for a long time to come, Practical Ethics can hope to give an answer. I have already pointed out that we cannot hope to discover which is the best possible alternative in any given circumstances, but only which, among a few, is better than the others. And I have also pointed out that there is certainly no more than a probability, even if we are entitled to assert so much, that what is better in regard to its immediate effects will also be better on the whole. It now remains to insist that, even with regard to these immediate effects, we can only hope to discover which, among a few alternatives, will generally produce the greatest balance of good in the immediate future. We can secure no title to assert that obedience to such commands as Thou shalt not lie, or even Thou shalt do no murder, is universally better than the alternatives of lying and murder. Reasons why no more than a general knowledge is possible have already been given in Chap. I. (§ 16); but they may be recapitulated here. In the first place, of the effects, which principally concern us in ethical discussions, as having intrinsic value, we know the causes so little, that we can scarcely claim, with regard to any single one, to have obtained even a hypothetical universal law, such as has been obtained in the exact sciences. We cannot even say: If this action is performed, under exactly these circumstances, and if no others interfere, this important effect, at least, will always be produced. But, in the second place, an ethical law is not merely hypothetical. If we are to know that it will always be better to act in a certain way, under certain circumstances, we must know not merely wha effects such actions will produce, provided no other circumstances interfere, but also that no other circumstances will interfere. And this it is obviouisly impossible to know with more than probability. An ethical law has the nature not of a scientific law but of a scientific prediction: and the latter is always merely probable, although the probability may be very great. An engineer is entitled to assert that, if a bridge be built in a certain way, it will probably bear certain loads for a certain time; but he can never be absolutely certain that it has been built in the way required, nor that, even if it has, some accident will not intervene to falsify his prediction. With any ethical law, the same must be the case; it can be no more than a generalisation: and here, owing to the comparative absence of accurate hypothetical knowledge, on which the prediction should be based, the probability is comparatively small. But finally, for an ethical generalisation, we require to know not only what effects will be produced, but also what are the comparative values of those effects; and on this question too, it must be admitted, considering what a prevalent opinion Hedonism has been, that we are very likely to be mistaken. It is plain, then, that we are not soon likely to know more than that one kind of action will generally produce better effects than another; and that more than this has certainly never been proved. In no two cases will all the effects of any kind of action be precisely the same, because in each case some of the circumstances will differ; and although the effects, that are important for good or evil, may be generally the same, it is extremely unlikely that they will always be so. (§ 94 ¶ 2)

§ 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)

§ 96.

But not by any means all the rules commonly recognised combine these two characteristics. The arguments offered in defence of Common Sense morality very often presupposes the existence of conditions, which cannot be fairly assumed to be so universally necessary as the tendency to continue life and to desire property. Such arguments, accordingly, only prove the utility of the rule, so long as certain conditions, which may alter, remain the same: it cannot be claimed of the rules thus defended, that they would be generally good as means in every state of society: in order to establish this universal general utility, it would be necessary to arrive at a correct view of what is good or evil in itself. This, for instance, seems to be the case with most of the rules comprehended under the name of Chastity. These rules are commonly defended, by Utilitarian writers who assume as their end the conservation of society, with arguments which presuppose the necessary existence of such sentiments as conjugal jealousy and paternal affection. These sentiments are no doubt sufficiently strong and general to make the defence valid for many conditions of society. But it is not difficult to imagine a civilised society existing without them; and, in such a case, if chastity were still to be defended, it would be necessary to establish that its violation produced evil effects, other than htose due to the assumed tendency of such violation to disintegrate society. Such a defence may, no doubt, be made; but it would require an examination into the primary ethical question of what is good and bad in itself, far more thorough than any ethical writer has ever offered to us. Whether this be so in this particular case or not, it is certain that a distinction, not commonly recognised, should be made between those rules, of which the social utility depends upon the existence of circumstances, more or less likely to alter, and those of which the utility seems certain under all possible conditions. (§ 96 ¶ 1)

§ 97.

It is obvious that all the rules, which were enumerated above as likely to be useful in almost any state of society, can also be defended owing to results which they produce under conditions which exist only in particular states of society. And it should be noticed that we are entitled to reckon among these conditions the sanctions of legal penalties, of social disapproval, and of private remorse, where these exist. These sanctions are, indeed, commonly treated by Ethics only as motives for the doing of actions of which the utility can be proved independently of the existence of these sanctions. And it may be admitted that sanctions ought not to be attached to actions which would not be right independently. Nevertheless it is plain that, where they do exist, they are not only motives but also justifications for the actions in question. One of the chief reasons why an action should not be done in any particular state of society is that it will be punished; since the punishment is in general itself a greater evil than would have been caused by the omission of the action punished. Thus the existence of a punishment may be an adequate reason for regarding an action as generally wrong, even though it has no other bad effects but even slightly good ones. The fact that an action will be punished is a condition of exactly the same kind as others of more or less permanence, which must be taken into account in discussing the general utility or disutility of an action in a particular state of society. (§ 97 ¶ 1)

§ 98.

It is plain, then, that the rules commonly recognised by Common Sense, in the society in which we live, and commonly advocated as if they were all equally and universally right and good, are of very different orders. Even those which seem to be most universally good as means, can only be shewn to be so, because of the existence of conditions, which, though perhaps evils, may be taken to be necessary; and even these owe their more obvious utilities to the existence of conditions, which cannot be taken to be necessary except over longer or shorter periods of history, and many of which are evils. Others seem to be justifiable solely by the existence of such more or less temporary conditions, unless we abandon the attempt to shew that they are means to that preservation of society, which is itself a mere means, and are able to establish that they are directly means to things good or evil in themselves, but which are not commonly recognised to be such. (§ 98 ¶ 1)

If, then, we ask what rules are or would be useful to be observed in the society in which we live, it seems possible to prove a definite utility in most of those which are in general both recognised and practised. But a great part of ordinary moral exhortation and social discussion consists in the advocating of rules, which are not generally practised; and with regard to these it seems very doubtful whether a case for their general utility can ever be conclusively made out. Such proposed rules commonly suffer from three main defects. In the first place (1) the actions which they advocate are very commonly such as it is impossible for most individuals to perform by any volition. It is far too usual to find classed together with actions, which can be performed, if only they be willed, others, of which the possibility depends on the possession of a peculiar disposition, which is given to few and cannot even be acquired. It may, no doubt, be useful to point out that those who have the necessary disposition should obey these rules; and it would, in many cases, be desirable that everybody should have this disposition. But it should be recognised that, when we regard a thing as a moral rule or law, we mean that it is one which almost everybody can observe by an effort of volition, in that state of society to which the rule is supposed to apply. (2) Actions are often advocated, of which, though they themselves are possible, yet the proposed good effects are not possible, because the conditions necessary for their existence are not sufficiently general. A rule, of which the observance would produce good effects, if human nature were in other respects different from what it is, is advocated as if its general observance would produce the same effects now and at once. In fact, however, by the time that the conditions necessary to make its observance useful have arisen, it is quite as likely that other conditions, rendering its observance unnecessary or positively harmful, may also have arisen; and yet this state of things may be a better one than that in which the rule in question would have been useful. (3) There also occurs the case in which the usefulness of a rule depends upon conditions likely to change, or of which the change would be as easy and more desirable than the observance of the proposed rule. It may even happen that the general observance of the proposed rule would itself destroy the conditions upon which its utility depends. (§ 98 ¶ 2)

One or other of these objections seems generally to apply to proposed changes in social custom, advocated as being better rules to follow than those now actually followed; and, for this reason, it seems doubtful whether Ethics can establish the utility of any rules other than those generally practised. But the inability to do so is fortunately of little practical moment. The question whether the general observance of a rule not generally observed, would or would not be desirable, cannot much affect the question how any individual ought to act; since, on the one hand, there is a large probability that he will not, by any means, be able to bring about its general observance, and, on the other hand, the fact that its general observance would be useful could, in any case, give him no reason to conclude that he himself ought to observe it, in the absence of such general observance. (§ 98 ¶ 3)

With regard, then, to the actions commonly classed in Ethics, as duties, crimes, or sins, the following points seem deserving of notice. (1) By so classing them we mean that they are actions which it is possible for an individual to perform or avoid, if he only wills to do so; and that they are actions which everybody ought to perform or avoid, when occasion arises. (2) We can certainly not prove of any such action that it ought to be done or avoided under all circumstances; we can only prove that its performance or avoidance will generally produce better results than the alternative. (3) If further we ask of what actions as much as this can be proved, it seems only possible to prove it with regard to those which are actually generally practised among us. And of these some only are such that their general performance would be useful in any state of society that seems possible; of others the utility depends upon conditions which exist now, but which seem to be more or less alterable. (§ 98 ¶ 4)

§ 99.

(d) So much, then, for moral rules or laws, in the ordinary sense—rules which assert that it is generally useful, under more or less common circumstances, for everybody to perform or omit some definite kind of action. It remains to say something with regard to the principles by which the individual should decide what he ought to do, (α) with regard to those actions as to which some general rule is certainly true, and (β) with regard to those where such a certain rule is wanting. (§ 99 ¶ 1)

(α) Since, as I have tried to shew, it is impossible to establish that any kind of action will produce a better total result than its alternative in all cases, it follows that in some cases the neglect of an established rule will probably be the best course of action possible. The question then arises: Can the individual ever be justified in assuming that his is one of these exceptional cases? And it seems that this question may be definitely answered in the negative. For, if it is certain that in a large majority of cases the observance of a certain rule is useful, it follows that there is a large probability that it would be wrong to break the rule in any particular case; and the uncertainty of our knowledge both of effects and of their value, in particular cases, is so great, that it seems doubtful whether the individual’s judgment that the effects will probably be good in his case can ever be sent against the general probability that that kind of action is wrong. Added to this general ignorance is the fact that, if the question arises at all, our judgment will generally be biased by the fact that we strongly desire one of the results which we hope to obtain by breaking the rule. It seems, then, that with regard to any rule which is generally useful, we may assert that it ought always to be observed, not on the ground that in every particular case it will be useful, but on the ground that in any particular case the probability of its being so is greater than that of our being likely to decide rightly that we have before us an instance of its disutility. In short, though we may be sure that there are cases where the rule should be broken, we can never know which those cases are, and ought, therefore, never to break it. It is this fact which seems to justify the stringency with which moral rules are usually enforced and sanctioned, and to give a sense in which we may accept as true the maxims that The end never justifies the means and That we should never do evil that good may come. The means and the evil, intended by these maxims, are, in fact, the breaking of moral rules generally recognised and practised, and which, therefore, we may assume to be generally useful. Thus understood, these maxims merely point out that, in any particular case, although we cannot clearly perceive any balance of good produced by keeping the rule and do seem to see one that would follow from breaking it, nevertheless the rule should be observed. It is hardly necessary to point out that this is so only because it is certain that, in general, the end does justify the means in question, and that therefore there is a probability that in this case it will do so also, although we cannot see that it will. (§ 99 ¶ 2)

But moreover the universal observance of a rule which is generally useful has, in many cases, a special utility, which seems deserving of notice. This arises from the fact that, even if we can clearly discern that our case is one where to break the rule is advantageous, yet, so far as our example has any effect at all in encouraging similar action, it will certainly tend to encourage breaches of the rule which are not advantageous. We may confidently assume that what will impress the imagination of others will not be the circumstances in which our case differs from ordinary cases and which justify our exceptional action, but the points in which it resembles other actions that are really criminal. In cases, then, where example has any influence at all, the effect of an exceptional right action will generally be to encourage wrong ones. And this effect will probably be exercised not only on other persons but on the agent himself. For it is impossible for any one to keep his intellect and sentiments so clear, but that, if he has once approved of a generally wrong action, he will be more likely to approve of it also under other circumstances than those which justified it in the first instance. This inability to discriminate exceptional cases offers, of course, a still stronger reason for the universal enforcement, by legal or social sanctions, of actions generally useful. It is undoubtedly well to punish a man, who has done an action, right in his case but generally wrong, even if his example would not be likely to have a dangerous effect. For sanctions have, in general, much more influence upon conduct than example; so that the effect of relaxing them in an exceptional case will almost certainly be an encouragement of similar action in cases which are not exceptional. (§ 99 ¶ 3)

The individual can therefore be confidently recommended always to conform to rules which are both generally useful and generally practised. In the case of rules of which the general observance would be useful but does not exist, or of rules which are generally practised but which are not useful, no such universal recommendations can be made. In many cases the sanctions attached may be decisive in favor of conformity to the existing custom. But it seems worth pointing out that, even apart from these, the general utility of an action most commonly depends upon the fact that it is generally practised: in a society where certain kinds of theft are the common rule, the utility of abstinence from such theft on the part of a single individual becomes exceedingly doubtful, even though the common rule is a bad one. There is, therefore, a strong probability in favour of adherence to an existing custom, even if it be a bad one. But we cannot, in this case, assert with any confidence that this probability is always greater than that of the individual’s power to judge that an exception will be useful; since we are here supposing certain one relevant fact—namely, that the rule, which he proposes to follow, would be better than that which he proposes to break, if it were generally observed. Consequently the effect of his example, so far as it tends to break down the existing custom, will here be for the good. The cases, where another rule would certainly be better than that generally observed, are, however, according to what was said above, very rare; and cases of doubt, which are those which arise most frequently, carry us into the next division of our subject. (§ 99 ¶ 4)

§ 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)