Chapter III: Good and Bad Conduct.


Sundry influences—moral, theological, and political—conspire to make people disguise from themselves this truth. As in narrower cases so in this widest case, they become so pre-occupied with the means by which an end is achieved, as eventually to mistake it for the end. Just as money, which is a means of satisfying wants, comes to be regarded by a miser as the sole thing to be worked for, leaving the wants unsatisfied; so the conduct men have found preferable because most conducive to happiness, has come to be thought of as intrinsically preferable: not only to be made a proximate end (which it should be), but to be made an ultimate end, to the exclusion of the true ultimate end. And yet cross-examination quickly compels everyone to confess the true ultimate end. Just as the miser, asked to justify himself, is obliged to allege the power of money to purchase desirable things, as his reason for prizing it; so the moralist who thinks this conduct intrinsically good and that intrinsically bad, if pushed home, has no choice but to fall back on their pleasure-giving and pain-giving effects. To prove this it needs but to observe how impossible it would be to think of them as we do, if their effects were reversed. (§11 ¶1)

Suppose that gashes and bruises caused agreeable sensations, and brought in their train increased power of doing work and receiving enjoyment; should we regard assault in the same manner as at present? Or suppose that self-mutilation, say by cutting off a hand, was both intrinsically pleasant and furthered performance of the processes by which personal welfare and the welfare of dependents is achieved; should we hold as now, that deliberate injury to one’s own body is to be reprobated? Or again, suppose that picking a man’s pocket excited in him joyful emotions, by brightening his prospects; would theft be counted among crimes, as in existing law-books and moral codes? In these extreme cases, no one can deny that what we call the badness of actions is ascribed to them solely for the reason that they entail pain, immediate or remote, and would not be so ascribed did they entail pleasure. (§11 ¶2)

If we examine our conceptions on their obverse side, this general fact forces itself on our attention with equal distinctness. Imagine that ministering to a sick person always increased the pains of illness. Imagine that an orphan’s relatives who took charge of it, thereby necessarily brought miseries upon it. Imagine that liquidating another man’s pecuniary claims on you redounded to his disadvantage. Imagine that crediting a man with noble behaviour hindered his social welfare and consequent gratification. What should we say to these acts which now fall into the class we call praiseworthy? Should we not contrariwise class them as blameworthy? (§11 ¶3)

Using, then, as our tests, these most pronounced forms of good and bad conduct, we find it unquestionable that our ideas of their goodness and badness really originate from our consciousness of the certainty or probability that they will produce pleasures or pains somewhere. And this truth is brought out with equal clearness by examining the standards of different moral schools; for analysis shows that every one of them derives its authority from this ultimate standard. Ethical systems are roughly distinguishable according as they take for their cardinal ideas (l) the character of the agent; (2) the nature of his motive; (3) the quality of his deeds; and (4) the results. Each of these may be characterized as good or bad; and those who do not estimate a mode of life by its effects on happiness, estimate it by the implied goodness or badness in the agent, in his motive, or in his deeds. We have perfection in the agent set up as a test by which conduct is to be judged. Apart from the agent we have his feeling considered as moral. And apart from the feeling we have his action considered as virtuous. (§11 ¶4)

Though the distinctions thus indicated have so little definiteness that the words marking them are used interchangeably, yet there correspond to them doctrines partially unlike one another; which we may here conveniently examine separately, with the view of showing that all their tests of goodness are derivative. (§11 ¶5)