Chapter III: Good and Bad Conduct.


When from those ethical estimates which take perfection of nature, or virtuousness of action, as tests, we pass to those which take for test rectitude of motive, we approach the intuitional theory of morals; and we may conveniently deal with such estimates by a criticism on this theory. (§14 ¶1)

By the intuitional theory I here mean, not that which recognizes as produced by the inherited effects of continued experiences, the feelings of liking and aversion we have to acts of certain kinds; but I mean the theory which regards such feelings as divinely given, and as independent of results experienced by self or ancestors. There is therefore, says Hutcheson, as each one by close attention and reflection may convince himself, a natural and immediate determination to approve certain affections, and actions consequent upon them; and since, in common with others of his time, he believes in the special creation of man, and all other beings, this natural sense of immediate excellence he considers as a supernaturally-derived guide. Though he says that the feelings and acts thus intuitively recognized as good, all agree in one general character, of tending to the happiness of others; yet he is obliged to conceive this as a pre-ordained correspondence. Nevertheless, it may be shown that conduciveness to happiness, here represented as an incidental trait of the acts which receive these innate moral approvals, is really the test by which these approvals are recognized as moral. The intuitionists place confidence in these verdicts of conscience, simply because they vaguely, if not distinctly, perceive them to be consonant with the disclosures of that ultimate test. Observe the proof. (§14 ¶2)

By the hypothesis, the wrongness of murder is known by a moral intuition which the human mind was originally constituted to yield; and the hypothesis therefore negatives the admission that this sense of its wrongness arises, immediately or remotely, from the consciousness that murder involves deduction from happiness, directly and indirectly. But if you ask an adherent of this doctrine to contrast his intuition with that of the Fijian. who, considering murder an honourable action, is restless until he has distinguished himself by killing some one; and if you inquire of him in what way the civilized intuition is to be justified in opposition to the intuition of the savage; no course is open save that of showing how conformity to the one conduces to well-being, while conformity to the other entails suffering, individual and general. When asked why the moral sense which tells him that it is wrong to take another man’s goods, should be obeyed rather than the moral sense of a Turcoman, who proves how meritorious he considers theft to be by making pilgrimages to the tombs of noted robbers to make offerings; the intuitionist can do nothing but urge that, certainly under conditions like ours, if not also under conditions like those of the Turcomans, disregard of men’s claims to their property not only inflicts immediate misery, but involves a social state inconsistent with happiness. Or if, again, there is required from him a justification for his feeling of repugnance to lying, in contrast with the feeling of an Egyptian, who prides himself on skill in lying (even thinking it praiseworthy to deceive without any further end than that of practising deception); he can do no more than point to the social prosperity furthered by entire trust between man and man, and the social disorganization that follows universal untruthfulness—consequences that are necessarily conducive to agreeable feelings and disagreeable feelings respectively. (§14 ¶3)

The unavoidable conclusion is, then, that the Intuitionist does not, and cannot, ignore the ultimate derivations of right and wrong from pleasure and pain. However much he may be guided, and rightly guided, by the decisions of conscience respecting the characters of acts; he has come to have confidence in these decisions because he perceives, vaguely but positively, that conformity to them furthers the welfare of himself and others, and that disregard of them entails in the long run suffering on all. Require him to name any moral-sense judgment by which he knows as right, some kind of act that will bring a surplus of pain, taking into account the totals in this life and in any assumed other life, and you find him unable to name one: a fact proving that underneath all these intuitions respecting the goodness or badness of acts, there lies the fundamental assumption that acts are good or bad according as their aggregate effects increase men’s happiness or increase their misery. (§14 ¶4)