Chapter I: Conduct in General.


Conduct is a whole; and, in a sense, it is an organic whole—an aggregate of inter-dependent actions performed by an organism. That division or aspect of conduct with which Ethics deals, is a part of this organic whole—a part having its components inextricably bound up with the rest. As currently conceived, stirring the fire, or reading a newspaper, or eating a meal, are acts with which Morality has no concern. Opening the window to air the room, putting on an overcoat when the weather is cold, are thought of as having no ethical significance. These, however, are all portions of conduct. The behaviour we call good and the behaviour we call bad, are included, along with the behaviour we call indifferent, under the conception of behaviour at large. The whole of which Ethics forms a part, is the whole constituted by the theory of conduct in general; and this whole must be understood before the part can be understood. Let us consider this proposition more closely. (§2 ¶1)

And first, how shall we define conduct? It is not coextensive with the aggregate of actions, though it is nearly so. Such actions as those of an epileptic in a fit, are not included in our conception of conduct: the conception excludes purposeless actions. And in recognizing this exclusion, we simultaneously recognize all that is included. The definition of conduct which emerges is either—acts adjusted to ends, or else—the adjustment of acts to ends; according as we contemplate the formed body of acts, or think of the form alone. And conduct in its full acceptation must be taken as comprehending all adjustments of acts to ends, from the simplest to the most complex, whatever their special natures and whether considered separately or in their totality. (§2 ¶2)

Conduct in general being thus distinguished from the somewhat larger whole constituted by actions in general, let us next ask what distinction is habitually made between the conduct on which ethical judgments are passed and the remainder of conduct. As already said, a large part of ordinary conduct is indifferent. Shall I walk to the waterfall to-day? or shall I ramble along the sea-shore? Here the ends are ethically indifferent. If I go to the waterfall, shall I go over the moor or take the path through the wood? Here the means are ethically indifferent. And from hour to hour most of the things we do are not to be judged as either good or bad in respect of either ends or means. No less clear is it that the transition from indifferent acts to acts which are good or bad is gradual. If a friend who is with me has explored the sea-shore but has not seen the waterfall, the choice of one or other end is no longer ethically indifferent. And if, the waterfall being fixed on as our goal, the way over the moor is too long for his strength, while the shorter way through the wood is not, the choice of means is no longer ethically indifferent. Again, if a probable result of making the one excursion rather than the other, is that I shall not be back in time to keep an appointment, or if taking the longer route entails this risk while taking the shorter does not, the decision in favour of one or other end or means acquires in another way an ethical character; and if the appointment is one of some importance, or one of great importance, or one of life-and-death importance, to self or others, the ethical character becomes pronounced. These instances will sufficiently suggest the truth that conduct with which Morality is not concerned, passes into conduct which is moral or immoral, by small degrees and in countless ways. (§2 ¶3)

But the conduct that has to be conceived scientifically before we can scientifically conceive those modes of conduct which are the objects of ethical judgments, is a conduct immensely wider in range than that just indicated. Complete comprehension of conduct is not to be obtained by contemplating the conduct of human beings only: we have to regard this as a part of universal conduct—conduct as exhibited by all living creatures. For evidently this comes within our definition—acts adjusted to ends. The conduct of the higher animals as compared with that of man, and the conduct of the lower animals as compared with that of the higher, mainly differ in this, that the adjustments of acts to ends are relatively simple and relatively incomplete. And as in other cases, so in this case, we must interpret the more developed by the less developed. Just as, fully to understand the part of conduct which Ethics deals with, we must study human conduct as a whole; so, fully to understand human conduct as a whole, we must study it as a part of that larger whole constituted by the conduct of animate beings in general. (§2 ¶4)

Nor is even this whole conceived with the needful fulness, so long as we think only of the conduct at present displayed around us. We have to include in our conception the less-developed conduct out of which this has arisen in course of time. We have to regard the conduct now shown us by creatures of all orders, as an outcome of the conduct which has brought life of every kind to its present height. And this is tantamount to saying that our preparatory step must be to study the evolution of conduct. (§2 ¶5)