Progressive Morality - An Essay in Ethics
by Thomas Fowler
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse











These pages represent an attempt to exhibit a scientific conception of morality in a popular form, and with a view to practical applications rather than the discussion of theoretical difficulties. For this purpose it has been necessary to study brevity and avoid controversy. Hence, I have made few references to other authors, and I have almost altogether dispensed with foot-notes. But, though I have attempted to state rather than to defend my views, I believe that they are, in the main, those which, making exception for a few back eddies in the stream of modern thought, are winning their way to general acceptance among the more instructed and reflective men of our day.

It is necessary that I should state that this Essay is independent of a much larger work, entitled the 'Principles of Morals,' on which I was, some years ago, engaged with my predecessor, the late Professor Wilson. Owing to the declining state of his health during the latter years of his life, that work was, at the time of his death, left in a condition which rendered its completion very difficult and its publication probably undesirable. For the present work I am solely responsible, though no one can have been brought into close contact with so powerful a mind as that of Professor Wilson, without deriving from it much stimulus and retaining many traces of its influence.

It has long been my belief that the questions of theoretical Ethics would be far less open to dispute, as well as far more intelligible, if they were considered with more direct reference to practice. This little book will, I trust, furnish an example, however slight and imperfect, of such a mode of treatment.


July 25, 1884.



Introduction. The Sanctions of Conduct.


The Moral Sanction or Moral Sentiment. Its Functions and the Justification of its claims to Superiority.


Analysis and Formation of the Moral Sentiment. Its Education and Improvement.


The Moral Test and its Justification.


Examples of the Practical Application of the Moral Test to existing Morality.


* * * * *



All reflecting men acknowledge that both the theory and the practice of morality have advanced with the general advance in the intelligence and civilisation of the human race. But, if this be so, morality must be a matter capable of being reasoned about, a subject of investigation and of teaching, in which the less intelligent members of a community have always something to learn from the more intelligent, and the more intelligent, in their turn, have ever fresh problems to solve and new material to study. It becomes, then, of prime importance to every educated man, to ask what are the data of Ethics, what is the method by which its general principles are investigated, what are the considerations which the moralist ought to apply to the solution of the complex difficulties of life and action. And still, in spite of these obvious facts, ethical investigation, or any approach to an independent review of the current morality, is always unpopular with the great mass of mankind. Though the conduct of their own lives is the subject which most concerns men, it is that in which they are least patient of speculation. Nothing is so wounding to the self-complacency of a man of indolent habits of mind as to call in question any of the moral principles on which he habitually acts. Praise and blame are usually apportioned, even by educated men, according to vague and general rules, with little or no regard to the individual circumstances of the case. And of all innovators, the innovator on ethical theory is apt to be the most unpopular and to be the least able to secure impartial attention to his speculations. And hence it is that vague theories, couched in unintelligible or only half-intelligible language, and almost totally inapplicable to practice, have usually done duty for what is called a system of moral philosophy. The authors or exponents of such theories have the good fortune at once to avoid odium and to acquire a reputation for profundity.

In the following pages, I shall attempt (1) to discriminate morality, properly so called, from other sanctions of conduct; (2) to determine the precise functions, and the ultimate justification, of the moral sentiment, or, in other words, of the moral sanction; (3) to enquire how this sentiment has been formed, and how it may be further educated and improved; (4) to discover some general test of conduct; (5) to give examples of the application of this test to existing moral rules and moral feelings, with a view to shew how far they may be justified and how far they require extension or reformation. As my subject is almost exclusively practical, I shall studiously avoid mere theoretical puzzles, such as is pre-eminently that of the freedom of the will, which, in whatever way resolved, probably never influences, and never will influence, any sane man's conduct. Questions of this kind will always excite interest in the sphere of speculation, and speculation is a necessity of the cultivated human intellect; but it does not seem to me that they can be profitably discussed in a treatise, the aim of which is simply to suggest principles for examining, for testing, and, if possible, for improving the prevailing sentiment on matters of practical morals.

To begin with the first division of my subject, How is morality, properly so called, discriminated from other sanctions of conduct? By a sanction I may premise that I mean any pleasure which attracts to as well as any pain which deters from a given course of action. In books on Jurisprudence, this word is usually employed to designate merely pains or penalties, but this circumstance arises from the fact that, at least in modern times, the law seldom has recourse to rewards, and effects its ends almost exclusively by means of punishments. When we are considering conduct, however, in its general aspects and not exclusively in its relations to law, we appear to need a word to express any inducement, whether of a pleasureable or painful nature, which may influence a man's actions, and such a word the term 'sanction' seems conveniently to supply. Taking the word in this extended sense, the sanctions of conduct may be enumerated as the physical, the legal, the social, the religious, and the moral. Of the physical sanction familiar examples may be found in the headache from which a man suffers after a night's debauch, the pleasure of relaxation which awaits a well-earned holiday, the danger to life or limb which is attendant on reckless exercise, or the glow of constant satisfaction which rewards a healthy habit of life. These pleasures and pains, when once experienced, exercise, for the future, an attracting or a deterring influence, as the case may be, on the courses of conduct with which they have respectively become associated. Thus, a man who has once suffered from a severe headache, after a night's drinking-bout, will be likely to exercise more discretion in future, or the prospect of agreeable diversion, at the end of a hard day's work, will quicken a man's efforts to execute his task.

The legal sanction is too familiar to need illustration. Without penal laws, no society of any size could exist for a day. There are, however, two characteristics of this sanction which it is important to point out. One is that it works almost exclusively[1] by means of penalties. It would be an endless and thankless business, in a society of any size, even if it were possible, to attempt to reward the virtuous for their consideration in not breaking the laws. The cheap, the effective, indeed, in most cases, the only possible method is to punish the transgressor. By a carefully devised and properly graduated system of penalties each citizen is thus furnished with the strongest inducement to refrain from those acts which may injure or annoy his neighbour. Another characteristic of the legal sanction is that, though it is professedly addressed to all citizens alike, it actually affects the uneducated and lower classes far more than the educated and higher classes of society. This circumstance arises partly from the fact that persons in a comfortable position of life are under little temptation to commit the more ordinary crimes forbidden by law, such as are theft, assault, and the like, and partly from the fact that their education and associations make them more amenable to the social, and, in most cases, to the moral and religious sanctions, about to be described presently. Few persons in what are called the higher or middle ranks of life have any temptation to commit, say, an act of theft, and, if they experienced any such temptation, they would be at least as likely to be restrained by the consideration of what their neighbours would think or say about them, even apart from their own moral and religious convictions, as by the fear of imprisonment.

[Footnote 1: There are a few exceptions to the rule that the sanctions employed by the state assume the form of punishments rather than of rewards. Such are titles and honours, pensions awarded for distinguished service, rewards to informers, &c. But these exceptions are almost insignificant, when compared with the numerous examples of the general rule.]

One of the most effective sanctions in all conditions of life, but especially in the upper and better educated circles of a civilized society, is what may be called the social sanction, that is to say, a regard for the good opinion and a dread of the evil opinion of those who know us, and especially of those amongst whom we habitually live. It is one of the characteristics of this sanction that it is much more far-reaching than the legal sanction. Not only does it extend to many acts of a moral character which are not affected, in most countries, by the legal sanction, such as lying, backbiting, ingratitude, unkindness, cowardice, but also to mere matters of taste or fashion, such as dress, etiquette, and even the proprieties of language. Indeed, as to the latter class of actions, there is always considerable danger of the social sanction becoming too strong. Society is apt to insist on all men being cast in one mould, without much caring to examine the character of the mould which it has adopted. And it frequently happens that a wholly disproportionate value thus comes to be attached to the observance of mere rules of etiquette and good-breeding as compared with acts and feelings which really concern the moral and social welfare of mankind. There is many a man, moving in good society, who would rather be guilty of, and even detected in, an act of unkindness or mendacity, than be seen in an unfashionable dress or commit a grammatical solecism or a broach of social etiquette. Vulgarity to such men is a worse reproach than hardness of heart or indifferent morality. In these cases, as we shall see hereafter, the social sanction requires to be corrected by the moral and religious sanctions, and it is the special province of the moral and religious teacher in each generation to take care that this correction shall be duly and effectively applied. The task may, from time to time, require the drastic hand of the moral or religious reformer, but, unless some one has the courage to undertake it, we are in constant danger of neglecting the weightier matters of the law, while we are busy with the mint and cummin and anise of fashion and convention. But, notwithstanding the danger of exaggeration and misapplication, there can be no doubt of the vast importance and the generally beneficial results of a keen sensitiveness to the opinions of our fellow-men. Without the powerful aid of this sanction, the restraints of morality and religion would often be totally ineffective.

When the social sanction operates, not through society generally, but through particular sections of society, it may be called a Law of Honour, a term which originated in the usages of Chivalry. In a complex and civilized form of society, such as our own, there may be many such laws of honour, and the same individual may be subject to several of them. Thus each profession, the army, the navy, the clerical, the legal, the medical, the artistic, the dramatic profession, has its own peculiar code of honour or rules of professional etiquette, which its members can only infringe on pain of ostracism, or, at least, of loss of professional reputation. The same is the case with trades, and is specially exemplified in the instance of trades-unions, or, their mediaeval prototypes, the guilds. A college or a school, again, has its own rules and traditions, which the tutor or undergraduate, the master or boy, can often only violate at his extreme peril. Almost every club, institution, and society affords another instance in point. The class of 'gentlemen,' too, that is to say, speaking roughly, the upper and upper middle ranks of society, claim to have a code of honour of their own, superior to that of the ordinary citizen. A breach of this code is called 'ungentlemanly' rather than wrong or immoral or unjust or unkind. So far as this code insists on courtesy of demeanour and delicacy of feeling and conduct, it is a valuable complement to the ordinary rules of morality, though, so far as it fulfils this function, it plainly ought not to be the exclusive possession of one class, but ought to be communicated, by means of example and education, to the classes who are now supposed to be bereft of it. There are points in this code, however, such as that the payment of 'debts of honour' should take precedence of that of tradesmen's bills, and that less courtesy is due to persons in an inferior station than to those in our own, which at least merit re-consideration. It may, indeed, be said of all these laws or codes of honour, that, though they have probably, on the whole, a salutary effect in maintaining a high standard of conduct in the various bodies or classes where they obtain, they require to be constantly watched, lest they should become capricious or tyrannical, and specially lest they should conflict with the wider interests of society or the deeper instincts of morality. It must not be forgotten that we are 'men' before we are 'gentlemen,' and that no claims of any profession, institution, or class can replace or supplant those of humanity and citizenship.

We see, then, or rather we are obliged at the present stage of our enquiry to assume, that the social sanction, whether it be derived from the average sentiment of society at large or from the customs and opinions of particular aggregates of society, requires constant correction at the hands of the moralist. The sentiment which it represents may be only the sentiment of men of average moral tone, or it may even be that of men of an inferior or degraded morality, and hence it often needs to be tested by the application of rules derived from a higher standard both of feeling and intelligence. Nor is it the moral standard only which may be used to correct the social standard. We may often advantageously have recourse to the legal standard for the same purpose. For the laws of a country express, as a rule, the sentiments of the wisest and most experienced of its citizens, and hence we might naturally expect that they would be in advance of the average moral sentiment of the people, as well as of the social traditions of particular professions or classes. And this I believe to be usually the case. For instances, we have to go no further than the comparison between the laws and the popular or professional sentiment on bribery at elections, on smuggling, on evasion of taxation, on fraudulent business transactions, on duelling, on prize-fighting, or on gambling. At the same time it must be confessed that, as laws sometimes become antiquated, and the leanings of lawyers are proverbially conservative, it occasionally happens that, on some points, the average moral sentiment is in advance of the law. I may select as examples, from comparatively recent legal history, the continuance of religious disabilities and the excessive punishment of ordinary or even trivial crimes; and, perhaps, I may venture to add, as a possible reform in the future now largely demanded by popular sentiment, some considerable modifications of the laws regulating the transfer of and the succession to landed property. Thus it will be seen that law and the sentiment of society may each be employed as corrective of the other, and that, consequently, their comparison implies a higher standard than either, by means of which each may be tested, and to which each, in its turn, may be referred. This higher or common standard it will be our business to consider in a subsequent part of this Essay. Meanwhile, it may be pointed out that, in addition to its function as an occasional corrective of the legal sanction, the social sanction subserves two great objects: first, it largely complements the legal sanction, being applicable to numberless cases which that sanction does not, and, in fact, cannot reach; secondly, the legal sanction, even in those cases which it reaches, is greatly reinforced by the social sanction, which adds the pains arising from an evil reputation, and all the indefinable social inconveniences which an evil reputation brings with it, to the actual penalties inflicted by the law.

The religious sanction varies, of course, with the different religious creeds, and, in the more imperfect forms of religion, by no means always operates in favour of morality. But it will be sufficient here to consider the religious sanction solely in relation to Christianity. As enforced by the Bible and the Church, the religious sanctions of conduct are two, which I shall call the higher and the lower sanctions. By the latter I mean the hope of the divine reward or the fear of the divine punishment, either in this world or the next; by the former, the love of God and that veneration for His nature which irresistibly inspires the effort to imitate His perfections. The lower religious sanction is plainly the same in kind with the legal sanction. If a man is induced to do or to refrain from doing a certain action from fear of punishment, the motive is the same, whether the punishment be for a long time or a short one, whether it is to take immediate effect or to be deferred for a term of years. And, similarly, the same is the case with rewards. No peculiar merit, as it appears to me, can be claimed by a man because he acts from fear of divine punishment rather than of human punishment, or from hope of divine rewards rather than of human rewards. The only differences between the two sanctions are (1) that the hopes and fears inspired by the religious sanction are, to one who believes in their reality, far more intense than those inspired by the legal sanction, the two being related as the temporal to the eternal, and (2) that, inasmuch as God is regarded as omnipresent and omniscient, the religious sanction is immeasurably more far-reaching than the legal sanction or even than the legal and the social sanctions combined. Thus the lower religious sanction is, to those who really believe in it, far more effective than the legal sanction, though it is the same in kind. But the higher religious sanction appeals to a totally different class of motives, the motives of love and reverence rather than of hope and fear. In this higher frame of mind, we keep God's commandments, because we love Him, not because we hope for His rewards or fear His punishments. We reverence God, and, therefore, we strive to be like Him, to be perfect even as He is perfect. We have attained to that state of mind in which perfect love has cast out fear, and, hence, we simply do good and act righteously because God, who is the supreme object of our love and the supreme ideal of conduct, is good and righteous. There can be no question that, in this case, the motives are far loftier and purer than in the case of the legal and the lower religious sanctions. But there are few men, probably, capable of these exalted feelings, and, therefore, for the great mass of mankind the external inducements to right conduct must, probably, continue to be sought in the coarser motives. It may be mentioned, before concluding this notice of the religious sanctions, that there is a close affinity between the higher religious sanction and that form of the social sanction which operates through respect for the good opinions of those of our fellow-men whom we love, reverence, or admire.

But, quite distinct from all the sanctions thus far enumerated, there is another sanction which is derived from our own reflexion on our own actions, and the approbation or disapprobation which, after such reflexion, we bestow upon them. There are actions which, on no reasonable estimate of probabilities, can ever come to the knowledge of any other person than ourselves, but which we look back on with pleasure or regret. It may be said that, though, in these cases, the legal and the social sanctions are confessedly excluded, the sanction which really operates is the religious sanction, in either its higher or its lower form. But it can hardly be denied that, even where there is no belief in God, or, at least, no vivid sense of His presence nor any effective expectation of His intervention, the same feelings are experienced. These feelings, then, appear to be distinct in character from any of the others which we have so far considered, and they constitute what may appropriately be called the moral sanction, in the strict sense of the term. It is one of the faults of Bentham's system that he confounds this sanction with the social sanction, speaking indifferently of the moral or popular (that is to say, social) sanction; but let any one examine carefully for himself the feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with which he looks back upon past acts of his own life, and ask himself whether he can discover in those feelings any reference to the praise or blame of other persons, actual or possible. There will, if I mistake not, be many of them in which he can discover no such reference, but in which the feeling is simply that of satisfaction with himself for having done what he ought to have done, or dissatisfaction with himself for having done that which he ought not to have done. Whether these feelings admit of analysis and explanation is another question, and one with which I shall deal presently, but of their reality and distinctness no competent and impartial person, on careful self-examination, can well doubt. The answer, then, to our first question, I conceive to be that the moral sanction, properly so called, is distinguished from all other sanctions of conduct in that it has no regard to the prospect of physical pleasure or pain, or to the hope of reward or fear of punishment, or to the estimation in which we shall be held by any other being than ourselves, but that it has regard simply and solely to the internal feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with which, on reflexion, we shall look back upon our own acts.



I now proceed to consider more at length what are the precise functions of the moral sentiment or moral sanction[1], and what is the justification of the weight which we attach to it, or rather of the preference which we assign to it, or feel that we ought to assign to it, over all the other sanctions of conduct. We have already seen that the moral sentiment or sanction is the feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction which we experience when we reflect on our own acts, without any reference to any external authority or external opinion. Now it is important to ask whether this feeling is uniformly felt on the occurrence of the same acts, or whether it ever varies, so that acts, for instance, which are at one time viewed with satisfaction, are at another time regarded with indifference or with positive dissatisfaction. It would seem as if no man who reflects on ethical subjects, and profits by the observation and experience of life, could possibly answer this question in any other than one way. There must be very few educated and reflective men who have not seen reason, with advancing years, to alter their opinion on many of, at least, the minor points of morality in which they were instructed as children. A familiar instance occurs at once in the different way in which most of us view card-playing or attendance at balls or theatres from the much stricter views which prevailed in many respectable English households a generation ago. On the other hand, excess in eating and drinking is regarded with far less indulgence now than it was in the days of our fathers and grandfathers. On these points, then, at least, and such as these, it must be allowed that there is a variation of moral sentiment, or, in other words, that the acts condemned or approved by the moral sanction are not invariably the same. Moreover, any of us who are accustomed to reason on moral questions, and can observe carefully the processes through which the mind passes, will notice that there is constantly going on a re-adjustment, so to speak, of our ethical opinions, whether we are reviewing abstract questions of morality or the specific acts of ourselves or others. We at one time think ourselves or others more, and, at another time, less blameable for the self-same acts, or we come to regard some particular class of acts in a different light from what we used to do, either modifying our praise or blame, or, in extreme cases, actually substituting one for the other. But, though these facts are patent, and may be verified by any one in his experience either of himself or others, there have actually been moralists who have appeared to maintain the position that, when a man is unbiassed by passion or interest, his moral judgments are and must be invariably the same. This error has, undoubtedly, been largely fostered by the loose and popular use of the terms conscience and moral sense. These terms, and especially the word conscience, are often employed to designate a sort of mysterious entity, supposed to have been implanted in the mind by God Himself, and endowed by Him with the unique prerogative of infallibility. Even so philosophical and sober a writer as Bishop Butler has given some countenance to this extravagant supposition, and to the exaggerated language which he employs on the prerogatives of conscience, and to the emphatic manner in which he insists on the absolute, if not the infallible, character of its decisions, may be traced much of the misconception which still prevails on the subject. But we have only to take account of the notorious fact that the consciences of two equally conscientious men may point in entirely opposite directions, in order to see that the decisions of conscience cannot, at all events, be credited with infallibility. Those who denounce and those who defend religious persecution, those who insist on the removal and those who insist on the retention of religious disabilities, those who are in favour of and those who are opposed to a relaxation of the marriage laws, those who advocate a total abstention from intoxicating liquors and those who allow of a moderate use of them,—men on both sides in these controversies, or, at least, the majority of them, doubtless act conscientiously, and yet, as they arrive at opposite conclusions, the conscience of one side or other must be at fault. There is no act of religious persecution, there are few acts of political or personal cruelty, for which the authority of conscience might not be invoked. I doubt not that Queen Mary acted as conscientiously in burning the Reformers as they did in promulgating their opinions or we do in condemning her acts. It is plain, then, not only that the decisions of conscience are not infallible, but that they must, to a very large extent, be relative to the circumstances and opinions of those who form them. In any intelligible or tenable sense of the term, conscience stands simply for the aggregate of our moral opinions reinforced by the moral sanction of self-approbation or self-disapprobation. That we ought to act in accordance with these opinions, and that we are acting wrongly if we act in opposition to them, is a truism. 'Follow Conscience' is the only safe guide, when the moment of action has arrived. But it is equally important to insist on the fallibility of conscience, and to urge men, by all means in their power, to be constantly improving and instructing their consciences, or, in plain words, to review and, wherever occasion offers, to correct their conceptions of right and wrong. The 'plain, honest man' of Bishop Butler would, undoubtedly, always follow his conscience, but it is by no means certain that his conscience would always guide him rightly, and it is quite certain that it would often prompt him differently from the consciences of other 'plain, honest men' trained elsewhere and under other circumstances. To act contrary to our opinions of right and wrong would be treason to our moral nature, but it does not follow that those opinions are not susceptible of improvement and correction, or that it is not as much our duty to take pains to form true opinions as to act in accordance with our opinions when we have formed them.

[Footnote 1: I use the expressions 'moral sanction' and 'moral sentiment' as equivalent terms, because the pleasures and pains, which constitute the moral sanction, are inseparable, even in thought, from the moral feeling. The moral feeling of self-approbation or self-disapprobation cannot even be conceived apart from the pleasures or pains which are attendant on it, and by means of which it reveals itself to us.

It should be noticed that the expression 'moral sentiment' is habitually used in two senses, as the equivalent (1) of the moral feeling only, (2) of the entire moral process, which, as we shall see in the third chapter, consists partly of a judgment, partly of a feeling. It is in the latter sense, for instance, that we speak of the 'current moral sentiment' of any given age or country, meaning the opinions then or there prevalent on moral questions, reinforced by the feeling of approbation or disapprobation. As, however, the moral feeling always follows immediately and necessarily on the moral judgment, whenever that judgment pronounces decisively for or against an action, and always implies a previous judgment (I am here again obliged to anticipate the discussion in chapter 3), the ambiguity is of no practical importance at the present stage of our enquiry. It is almost needless to add that the word 'sentiment,' when used alone, has the double meaning of a feeling and an opinion, an ambiguity which is sometimes not without practical inconvenience.]

The terms 'conscience' and 'moral sense' are very convenient expressions for popular use, provided we always bear in mind that 'illuminate' or 'instruct' your 'conscience' or 'moral sense' is quite as essential a rule as 'follow' your 'conscience' or 'moral sense.' But the scientific moralist, in attempting to analyse the springs of moral action and to detect the ultimate sanctions of conduct, would do well to avoid these terms altogether. The analysis of moral as well as of intellectual acts is often only obscured by our introducing the conception of 'faculties,' and, in the present instance, it is far better to confine ourselves to the expressions 'acts' of 'approbation or disapprobation,' 'satisfaction or dissatisfaction,' which we shall hereafter attempt to analyse, than to feign, or at least assume, certain 'faculties' or 'senses' as distinct entities from which such acts are supposed to proceed. I shall, therefore, in the sequel of this work, say little or nothing of 'conscience' or 'moral sense,' not because I think it desirable to banish those words from popular terminology, but because I think that, in an attempt to present the principles of ethics in a scientific form, they introduce needless complexity and obscurity.

If the statements thus far made in this chapter be accepted, it follows that the feelings of self-approbation and self-disapprobation, which constitute the moral sanction, by no means invariably supervene on acts of the same kind even in the case of the same individual, much less in the case of different individuals, and that the acts which elicit the moral sanction depend, to a considerable extent, on the circumstances and education of the person who passes judgment on them. The moral sanction, therefore, though it always consists in the feelings of self-approbation, or self-disapprobation, of satisfaction or dissatisfaction at one's own acts, is neither uniform, absolute, nor infallible; but varies, as applied not only by different individuals but by the same individual at different times, in relation to varying conditions of education, temperament, nationality, and, generally, of circumstances both external and internal. Lastly, it admits of constant improvement and correction. How, then, it may be asked, do we justify the application of this sanction, and why do we regard it as not only a legitimate sanction of conduct, but as the most important of all sanctions, and, in cases of conflict, the supreme and final sanction?

The answer to this question is that, if we regard an action as wrong, no matter whether our opinion be correct or not, no external considerations whatsoever can compensate us for acting contrary to our convictions. Human nature, in its normal condition, is so constituted that the remorse felt, when we look back upon a wrong action, far outweighs any pleasure we may have derived from it, just as the satisfaction with which we look back upon a right action far more than compensates for any pain with which it may have been attended. The 'mens sibi conscia recti' is the highest reward which a man can have, as, on the other hand, the retrospect on base, unjust, or cruel actions constitutes the most acute of torments. Now, when a man looks back upon his past actions, what he regards is not so much the result of his acts as the intention and the motives by which the intention was actuated. It is not, therefore, what he would now think of the act so much as what he then thought of it that is the object of his approbation or disapprobation. And, consequently, even though his opinions as to the nature of the act may meanwhile have undergone alteration, he approves or disapproves of what was his intention at the moment of performing it and of the state of mind from which it then proceeded. It is true that the subsequent results of our acts and any change in our estimate of their moral character may considerably modify the feelings with which we look back upon them, but, still, in the main, it holds good that the approval or disapproval with which we regard our past conduct depends rather upon the opinions of right and wrong which we entertained at the moment of action than those which we have come to entertain since. To have acted, at any time, in a manner contrary to what we then supposed to be right leaves behind it a trace of dissatisfaction and pain, which may, at any future time, reappear to trouble and distress us; just as to have acted, in spite of all conflicting considerations, in a manner which we then conceived to be right, may, in after years, be a perennial source of pleasure and satisfaction. It is characteristic of the pleasures and pains of reflexion on our past acts (which pleasures and pains of reflexion may, of course, connect themselves with other than purely moral considerations), not only that they admit of being more intense than any other pleasures and pains, but that, whenever there is any conflict between the moral sanction and any other sanction, it is to the moral sanction that they attach themselves. Thus, if a man has incurred physical suffering, or braved the penalties of the law or the ill word of society, in pursuance of a course of conduct which he deemed to be right, he looks back upon his actions with satisfaction, and the more important the actions, and the clearer his convictions of right and the stronger the inducements to act otherwise, the more intense will his satisfaction be. But no such satisfaction is felt, when a man has sacrificed his convictions of right to avoid physical pain, or to escape the penalties of the law, or to conciliate the goodwill of society; the feeling, on the other hand, will be that of dissatisfaction with himself, varying, according to circumstances, from regret to remorse. And, if no similar remark has to be made with reference to the religious sanction, it is because, in all the higher forms of religion, the religious sanction is conceived of as applying to exactly the same actions as the moral sanction. What a man himself deems right, that he conceives God to approve of, and what he conceives God as disapproving of, that he deems wrong. But in a religion in which God was not regarded as holy, just, and true, or in which there was a plurality of gods, some good and some evil, I conceive that a man would look back with satisfaction, and not with dissatisfaction, on those acts in which he had followed his own sense of right rather than the supposed will of the Deity, just as, when there is a conflict between the two, he now congratulates himself on having submitted to the claims of conscience rather than to those of the law.

The justification, then, of that claim to superiority, which is asserted by the moral sanction, consists, I conceive, in two circumstances: first, that the pleasures and pains, the feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, of self-approbation and self-disapprobation, by means of which it works, are, in the normally constituted mind, far more intense and durable than any other pleasures and pains; secondly, that, whenever this sanction comes into conflict with any other sanction, its defeat is sure, on a careful retrospect of our acts, to bring regret or remorse, whereas its victory is equally certain to bring pleasure and satisfaction. We arrive, then, at the conclusion that it is the moral sanction which is the distinctive guide of conduct, and to which we must look, in the last resort, to enforce right action, while the other sanctions are mainly valuable in so far as they reinforce the moral sanction or correct its aberrations. A man must, ultimately, be the judge of his own conduct, and, as he acts or does not act according to his own best judgment, so he will subsequently feel satisfaction or remorse; but these facts afford no reason why he should not take pains to inform his judgment by all the means which physical knowledge, law, society, and religion place at his disposal.



Before proceeding to our third question, namely, how the moral sentiment, which is the source of the moral sanction, has been formed, and how it may be further educated and improved, it is desirable to discriminate carefully between the intellectual and the emotional elements in an act of approbation or disapprobation. We sometimes speak of moral judgment, sometimes of moral feeling. These expressions ought not to be regarded as the symbols of rival theories on the nature of the act of moral approbation, as has sometimes been the case, but as designating distinct parts of the process, or, to put the same statement rather differently, separate elements in the analysis. Hume, whose treatment of this subject is peculiarly lucid, as compared with that of most writers on ethics, after reviewing the reasons assigned by those authors respectively who resolve the act of approbation into an act of judgment or an act of feeling, adds[1]: 'These arguments on each side (and many more might be produced) are so plausible, that I am apt to suspect they may, the one as well as the other, be solid and satisfactory, and that reason and sentiment concur in almost all moral determinations and conclusions. The final sentence; it is probable, which pronounces characters and actions amiable or odious, praiseworthy or blameable; that which stamps on them the mark of honour or infamy, approbation or censure; that which renders morality an active principle, and constitutes virtue our happiness and vice our misery: it is probable, I say, that this final sentence depends on some internal sense or feeling, which nature has made universal in the whole species. For what else can have an influence of this nature? But, in order to pave the way for such a sentiment and give a proper discernment of its object, it is often necessary, we find, that much reasoning should precede, that nice distinctions be made, just conclusions drawn, distant comparisons formed, complicated relations examined, and general facts fixed and ascertained. Some species of beauty, especially the natural kinds, on their first appearance, command our affection and approbation; and, where they fail of this effect, it is impossible for any reasoning to redress their influence, or adapt them better to our taste and sentiment. But in many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts, it is requisite to employ much reasoning, in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflexion. There are just grounds to conclude that moral beauty partakes much of this latter species, and demands the assistance of our intellectual faculties, in order to give it a suitable influence on the human mind.'

[Footnote 1: Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, Section I.]

This passage, which I have thought it worth while to quote at length, exhibits, with sufficient clearness, the respective provinces of reason and feeling in the ethical estimation of action. Whether we are reviewing the actions of ourselves or of others, what we seem to do, in the first instance, is to refer them to some class, or associate them with certain actions of a similar kind which are familiar to us, and, then, when their character has thus been determined, they excite the appropriate feeling of approbation or disapprobation, praise or censure. Thus, as soon as we have realised that a statement is a lie or an act is fraudulent, we at once experience a feeling of indignation or disgust at the person who has made the statement or committed the act. And, in the same way, as soon as we have recognised that an act is brave or generous, we regard with esteem or admiration the doer of it. But, though the feeling of approbation or disapprobation follows instantaneously on the act of judgment, the recognition of the character of the action, or its reference to a class, which constitutes this act of judgment, may be, and often is, a process of considerable length and complexity. Take the case of a lie. What did the man really say? In what sense did he employ the words used? What was the extent of his knowledge at the time that he made the statement? And what was his intention? These and possibly other questions have to be answered, before we are justified in accusing him of having told a lie. When the offence is not only a moral but a legal one, the act of determining the character of the action in question is often the result of a prolonged enquiry, extending over weeks or months. No sooner, however, is the intellectual process completed, and the action duly labelled as a lie, or a theft, or a fraud, or an act of cruelty or ingratitude, or the like, than the appropriate ethical emotion is at once excited. The intellectual process may also be exceedingly rapid, or even instantaneous, and always is so when we have no doubt as to the nature either of the action or of the intention or of the motives, but its characteristic, as distinguished from the ethical emotion, is that it may take time, and, except in perfectly clear cases or on very sudden emergencies requiring subsequent action, always ought to do so.

We are now in a position to see the source of much confusion in the ordinary mode of speaking and writing on the subject of the moral faculty, the moral judgment, the moral feeling, the moral sense, the conscience, and kindred terms. The instantaneous, and the apparently instinctive, authoritative, and absolute character of the act of moral approbation or disapprobation attaches to the emotional, and not to the intellectual part of the process. When an action has once been pronounced to be right or wrong, morally good or evil, or has been referred to some well-known class of actions whose ethical character is already determined, the emotion of approval or disapproval is excited and follows as a matter of course. There is no reasoning or hesitation about it, simply because the act is not a reasoning act. Hence, it appears to be instinctive, and becomes invested with those superior attributes of authoritativeness, absoluteness, and even infallibility, which are not unnaturally ascribed to an act in which, there being no process of reasoning, there seems to be no room for error. And, indeed, the feelings of moral approbation and disapprobation can never be properly described as erroneous, though they are frequently misapplied. The error attaches to the preliminary process of reasoning, reference, or classification, and, if this be wrongly conducted, there is no justification for the feeling which is consequent upon it. But, instead of our asking for the justification of the feeling in the rational process which has preceded it, we often unconsciously justify our reasoning by the feeling, and thus the whole process assumes the unreflective character which properly belongs only to the emotional part of it. It is the want of a clear distinction between the logical process which determines the character of an act,—the moral judgment,—and the emotion which immediately supervenes when the character of the act is determined,—the moral feeling,—that accounts for the exaggerated epithets which are often attributed to the operations of the moral faculty, and for the haste and negligence in which men are consequently encouraged to indulge, when arriving at their moral decisions. Let it be recollected that, when we have time for reflexion, we cannot take too much pains in forming our decisions upon conduct, for there is always a possibility of error in our judgments, but that, when our judgments are formed, we ought to give free scope to the emotions which they naturally evoke, and then we shall develope a conscience, so to speak, at once enlightened and sensitive, we shall combine accuracy and justness of judgment with delicacy and strength of feeling.

There remains the question whether the feelings of approval and disapproval, which supervene on our moral judgments, admit of any explanation, or whether they are to be regarded as ultimate facts of our mental constitution. It seems to me that, on a little reflexion, we are led to adopt the former alternative. What are the classes of acts, under their most general aspect, which elicit the feelings of moral approbation and disapprobation? They are such as promote, or tend to promote, the good either of ourselves or of others. Now the feelings of which these classes of acts are the direct object are respectively the self-regarding and the sympathetic feelings, or, as they have been somewhat uncouthly called, the egoistic and altruistic feelings. We have a variety of appetites and desires, which centre in ourselves, including what has been called rational self-love, or a desire for what, on cool reflexion, we conceive to be our own highest good on the whole, as well as self-respect, or a regard for our own dignity and character, and for our own opinion of ourselves. When any of these various appetites or desires are gratified, we feel satisfaction, and, on the other hand, when they are thwarted, we feel dissatisfaction. Similarly, we have a number of affections, of which others are the object, some of them of a malevolent or resentful, but most of them of a benevolent character, including a general desire to confer all the happiness that we can. Here, again, we feel satisfaction, when our affections are gratified, and dissatisfaction, when they are thwarted. Now these feelings of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, which are called reflex feelings, because they are reflected, as it were, from the objects of our desires, include, though they are by no means coextensive with, the feelings of moral approbation and disapprobation. When, for instance, we gratify the appetites of hunger or thirst, or our love of curiosity or power, we feel satisfaction, but we can hardly be said to regard the gratification of these appetites or feelings with moral approval or disapproval. We perform thousands of acts, and see thousands of acts performed, every day, which never excite any moral feeling whatever. But there are few men in whom an undoubted act of kindness or generosity or resistance to temptation would not at once elicit admiration or respect, or, if they reflected on such acts in their own case, of self-approval. Now, what are the circumstances which distinguish these acts which merely cause us satisfaction from those which elicit the moral feeling of approbation? This question is one by no means easy to answer, and the solution of it must obviously depend to some extent on the moral surroundings and prepossessions of the person who undertakes to answer it. But, attempting to take as wide a survey as possible of those acts which, in different persons, elicit moral approbation or disapprobation, I will endeavour to discriminate the characteristics which they have in common.

All those acts, then, it seems to me, which elicit a distinctively moral feeling have been the result of some conflict amongst the various desires and affections, or, to adopt the more ordinary phraseology, of a conflict of motives. We neither approve nor disapprove of acts with regard to which there seems to have been little or no choice, which appear to have resulted naturally from the pre-existing circumstances. Thus, if a well-to-do man pays his debts promptly, or a man of known poverty asks to have the time of payment deferred, we neither visit the one with praise nor the other with censure, though, if their conduct were reversed, we should censure the former and praise the latter. The reason of this difference of treatment is plain. There is not, or at least need not be, any conflict, in the case of the well-to-do man, between his own convenience or any reasonable gratification of his desires and the satisfaction of a just claim. Hence, in paying the debt promptly, he is only acting as we might expect him to act, and his conduct excites no moral feeling on our part, though, if he were to act differently, he would incur our censure. The poor man, on the other hand, must have put himself to some inconvenience and exercised some self-denial in order to meet his engagement at the exact time at which the payment became due, and hence he merits our praise, though, if he had acted otherwise, the circumstances might have excused him.

Another characteristic of acts which we praise or blame, in the case of others, or approve or disapprove, on reflexion, in our own case, seems to be that they must possess some importance. The great majority of our acts are too trivial to merit any notice, such as is implied in a moral judgment. When a man makes way for another in the street, or refrains from eating or drinking more than is good for him, neither he nor the bystander probably ever thinks of regarding the act as a meritorious one. It is taken as a matter of course, though the opposite conduct might, under certain circumstances, be of sufficient importance to incur censure. It is impossible here, as in most other cases where we speak of 'importance,' to draw a definite line, but it may at least be laid down that an act, in order to be regarded as moral or immoral, must be of sufficient importance to arrest attention, and stimulate reflexion.

Thus far, then, we have arrived at the conclusion that acts which are the objects of moral approbation and disapprobation must have a certain importance, and must be the result of a certain amount of conflict between different motives. But we have not as yet attempted to detect any principle of discrimination between those acts which are the objects of praise or approbation and those which are the objects of censure or disapprobation. Now it seems to me that such a principle may be found in the fact that all those acts of others which we praise or those acts of ourselves which, on reflexion, we approve involve some amount of sacrifice, whereas all those acts of others which we blame, or those acts of ourselves which, on reflexion, we disapprove involve some amount of self-indulgence. The conflict is between a man's own lower and higher good, or between his own good and the greater good of others, or, in certain cases, as we shall see presently, between the lesser good of some, reinforced by considerations of self-interest or partiality, and the greater good of others, not so reinforced, or even, occasionally, between the pleasure or advantage of others and a disproportionate injury to himself; and he who, in the struggle, gives the preference to the former of these motives usually becomes the object of censure or, on reflexion, of self-disapprobation, while he who gives the preference to the latter becomes the object of praise or, on reflexion, of self-approbation. I shall endeavour to illustrate this position by a few instances mostly taken from common life. We praise a man who, by due economy, makes decent provision for himself in old age, as we blame a man who fails to do so. Quite apart from any public or social considerations, we admire and applaud in the one man the power of self-restraint and the habit of foresight, which enable him to subordinate his immediate gratifications to his larger interests in the remote future, and to forego sensual and passing pleasures for the purpose of preserving his self-respect and personal independence in later life. And we admire and applaud him still more, if to these purely self-regarding considerations he adds the social one of wishing to avoid becoming a burden on his family or his friends or the public. Just in the same way, we condemn the other man, who, rather than sacrifice his immediate gratification, will incur the risk of forfeiting his self-respect and independence in after years as well as of making others suffer for his improvidence. A man who, by the exercise of similar economy and forethought, makes provision for his family or relations we esteem still more than the man who simply makes provision for himself, because the sacrifice of passing pleasures is generally still greater, and because there is also, in this case, a total sacrifice of all self-regarding interests, except, perhaps, self-respect and reputation, for the sake of others. Similarly, the man who has a family or relations dependent upon him, and who neglects to make future provision for them, deservedly incurs our censure far more than the man who merely neglects to make provision for himself, because his self-indulgence has to contend against the full force of the social as well as the higher self-regarding motives, and its persistence is, therefore, the less excusable.

I will next take the familiar case of a trust, voluntarily undertaken, but involving considerable trouble to the trustee, a case of a much more complicated character than the last. If the trustee altogether neglects or does not devote a reasonable amount of attention to the affairs of the trust, there is no doubt that, besides any legal penalties which he may incur, he merits moral censure. Rather than sacrifice his own ease or his own interests, he violates the obligation which he has undertaken and brings inconvenience, or possibly disaster, to those whose interests he has bound himself to protect. But the demands of the trust may become so excessive as to tax the time and pains of the trustee to a far greater extent than could ever have been anticipated, and to interfere seriously with his other employments. In this case no reasonable person, I presume, would censure the trustee for endeavouring, even at some inconvenience or expense to the persons for whose benefit the trust existed, to release himself from his obligation or to devolve part of the work on a professional adviser. While, however, the work connected with the trust did not interfere with other obligations or with the promotion of the welfare of others, no one, I imagine, would censure the trustee for continuing to perform it, to his own inconvenience or disadvantage, if he chose to do so. His neighbours might, perhaps, say that he was foolish, but they would hardly go to the length of saying that he acted wrongly. Neither, on the other hand, would they be likely to praise him, as the sacrifice he was undergoing would be out of proportion to the good attained by it, and the interests of others to which he was postponing his own interests would not be so distinctly greater as to warrant the act of self-effacement. But now let us suppose that, in attending to the interests of the trust, he is neglecting the interests of others who have a claim upon him, or impairing his own efficiency as a public servant or a professional man. If the interests thus at stake were plainly much greater than those of the trust, as they might well be, the attitude of neutrality would soon be converted into one of positive censure, unless he took means to extricate himself from the difficulty in which he was placed.

The supposition just made illustrates the fact that the moral feelings may attach themselves not only to cases in which the collision is between a man's own higher and lower good, or between his own good and that of another, but also to those in which the competition is entirely between the good of others. It may be worth while to illustrate this last class of cases by one or two additional examples. A man tells a lie in order to screen a friend. The act is a purely social one, for he stands in no fear of his friend, and expects no return. It might be said that the competition, in this example, is between serving his friend and wounding his own self-respect. But the consciousness of cowardice and meanness which attends a lie spoken in a man's own interest hardly attaches to a lie spoken for the purpose of protecting another. And, any way, a little reflexion might show that the apparently benevolent intention comes into collision with a very extensive and very stringent social obligation, that of not impairing our confidence in one another's assertions. Without maintaining that there are no conceivable circumstances under which a man would be justified in committing a breach of veracity, it may at least be said that, in the lives of most men, there is not likely to occur any case in which the greater social good would not be attained by the observation of the general rule to tell the truth rather than by the recognition of an exception in favour of a lie, even though that lie were told for purely benevolent reasons. In all those circumstances in which there is a keen sense of comradeship, as at school or college, or in the army or navy, this is a principle which requires to be constantly kept in view, and to be constantly enforced. The not infrequent breach of it, under such circumstances, affords a striking illustration of the manner in which the laws of honour, spoken of in the first chapter, occasionally over-ride the wider social sentiment and even the dictates of personal morality, Esprit de corps is, doubtless, a noble sentiment, and, on the whole, productive of much good, but, when it comes into collision with the more general rules of morality, its effects are simply pernicious. I will next take an example of the conflict between two impulses, each having for its object the good of others, from the very familiar case of a man having to appoint to, or vote in the election to, a vacant office or situation. The interests of the public service or of some institution require that the most competent candidate should be preferred. But a relative, or a friend, or a political ally is standing. Affection, therefore, or friendship, or loyalty to party ties often dictates one course of conduct, and regard for the public interests another. When the case is thus plainly stated, there are probably few men who would seriously maintain that we ought to subordinate the wider to the narrower considerations, and still, in practice, there are few men who have the courage to act constantly on what is surely the right principle in this matter, and, what is worse still, even if they did, they would not always be sustained by public opinion, while they would be almost certain to be condemned by the circle in which they move. So frequently do the difficulties of this position recur, that I have often heard a shrewd friend observe that no man who was fit for the exercise of patronage would ever desire to be entrusted with it. The moral rule in ordinary cases is plain enough; it is to appoint or vote for the candidate who is most competent to fulfil the duties of the post to be filled up. There are exceptional cases in which it may be allowable slightly to modify this rule, as where it is desirable to encourage particular services, or particular nationalities, or the like, but, even in these cases, the rule of superior competency ought to be the preponderating consideration. Parliamentary and, in a lesser degree, municipal elections, of course, form a class apart. Here, in the selection of candidates within the party, superior competency ought to be the guiding consideration, but, in the election itself, the main object being to promote or prevent the passing of certain public measures, the elector quite rightly votes for those who will give effect to his opinions, irrespectively of personal qualifications, though, even in these cases, there might be an amount of unfitness which would warrant neutrality or opposition. Peculiarly perplexing cases of competition between the rival claims of others sometimes occur in the domain of the resentful feelings, which, in their purified and rationalised form, constitute the sense of justice. My servant, or a friend, or a relative, has committed a theft. Shall I prosecute him? A general regard to the public welfare undoubtedly demands that I should do so. There are few obligations more imperative on the individual citizen than that of denouncing and prosecuting crime. But, in the present case, there is the personal tie, involving the obligation of protection and assistance. This tie, obviously, must count for something, as a rival consideration. No man, except under the most extreme circumstances, would prosecute his wife, or his father, or his mother. The question, then, is how far this consideration is to count against the other, and much must, evidently, depend on the degree of relationship or of previous intimacy, the time and amount and kind of service, and the like. A similar conflict of motives arises when the punishment invoked would entail the culprit's ruin, or that of his wife or family or others who are dependent upon him. It is impossible, in cases of this kind, to lay down beforehand any strict rules of conduct, and the rectitude of the decision must largely turn on the experience, skill, and honesty of the person who attempts to resolve the difficulty.

Instances of the last division, where the conflict is between the pleasure or advantage of others and a disproportionate injury to oneself, are of comparatively infrequent occurrence. It is not often that a man hesitates sufficiently between his own manifest disadvantage and the small gains or pleasures of his neighbours to make this class of cases of much importance to the moralist. As a rule, we may be trusted to take care of ourselves, and other people credit us sufficiently with this capacity not to trade very much upon the weakness of mere good-nature, however much they may trade upon our ignorance and folly. The most familiar example, perhaps, of acts of imprudence of the kind here contemplated is to be found in the facility with which some people yield to social temptations, as where they drink too much, or bet, or play cards, when they know that they will most likely lose their money, out of a feeling of mere good fellowship; or where, from the mere desire to amuse others, they give parties which are beyond their means. The gravest example is to be found in certain cases of seduction. Instances of men making large and imprudent sacrifices of money for inadequate objects are very rare, and are rather designated as foolish than wrong. With regard to all the failings and offences which fall under this head, it may be remarked that, from their false show of generosity, society is apt to treat them too venially, except where they entail degradation or disgrace. If it be asked how actions of this kind, seeing that they are done out of some regard to others, can be described as involving self-indulgence, or the resistance to them can be looked on in the light of sacrifice, it may be replied that the conflict is between a feeling of sociality or a spirit of over-complaisance or the like, on the one side, and a man's self-respect or a regard to his own highest interests, on the other, and that some natures find it much easier to yield to the former than to maintain the latter. It is quite possible that the spirit of sacrifice may be exhibited in the maintenance, against temptation, of a man's own higher interests, and the spirit of self-indulgence in weakly yielding to a perverted sympathy or an exaggerated regard for the opinions of others.

Before concluding this chapter, there are a few objections to be met and explanations to be made. In the first place, it may be objected that the theory I have adopted, that the moral feeling is excited only where there has been a conflict of motives, runs counter to the ordinary view, that acts proceeding from a virtuous or vicious habit are done without any struggle and almost without any consciousness of their import. I do not at all deny that a habit may become so perfect that the acts proceeding from it cease to involve any struggle between conflicting motives, but, in this case, I conceive that our approbation or disapprobation is transferred from the individual acts to the habit from which they spring, and that what we really applaud or condemn is the character rather than the actions, or at least the actions simply as indicative of the character. And the reason that we often praise or blame acts proceeding from habit more than acts proceeding from momentary impulse is that we associate such acts with a good or evil character, as the case may be, and, therefore, include the character as well as the acts in the judgment which we pass upon them.

It may possibly have occurred to the reader that, in the latter part of this chapter, I have been somewhat inconsistent in referring usually to the social sanction of praise and blame rather than to the distinctively moral sanction of self-approbation and self-disapprobation. I have employed this language solely for the sake of convenience, and to avoid the cumbrous phraseology which the employment of the other phrases would sometimes have occasioned. In a civilized and educated community, the social sentiment may, on almost all points except those which involve obscure or delicate considerations of morality, be taken to be identical with the moral sentiment of the most reflective members of the society, and hence in the tolerably obvious instances which I have selected there was no need to draw any distinction between the two, and I have felt myself at liberty to be guided purely by considerations of convenience. All that I have said of the praise or blame, the applause or censure, of others, of course, admits of being transferred to the feelings with which, on reflexion, we regard our own acts.

I am aware that the expressions, 'higher and lower good,' 'greater and lesser good,' are more or less vague. But the traditional acceptation of the terms sufficiently fixes their meaning to enable them to serve as a guide to moral conduct and moral feeling, especially when modified by the experience and reflexion of men who have given habitual attention to the working of their own motives and the results of their own practice. As I shall shew in the next chapter, any terms which we employ to designate the test of moral action and the objects of the moral feeling are indefinite, and must depend, to some extent, on the subjective interpretation of the individual. All that we can do is to avail ourselves of the most adequate and intelligible terms that we can find. But, admitting the necessary indefiniteness of the terms, it may be asked whether it can really be meant, as a general proposition, that the praise of others and our approbation of ourselves, on reflexion, attach to acts in which we subordinate our own good to the greater good of others, however slight the preponderance of our neighbour's good over out own may be. If we have to undergo an almost equal risk in order to save another, or, in order to promote another's interests, to forego interests almost as great, is not our conduct more properly designated as weak or quixotic, than noble or generous? This would not, I think, be the answer of mankind at large to the question, or that of any person whose moral sentiments had been developed under healthy influences. When a man, at the risk of his own life, saves another from drowning, or, at a similar risk, protects his comrade in battle, or, rushing into the midst of a fire, attempts to rescue the helpless victims, surely the feeling of the bystanders is that of admiration, and not of pity or contempt. When a man, with his life in his hands, goes forth on a missionary or a philanthropic enterprise, like Xavier, or Henry Martyn, or Howard, or Livingstone, or Patteson, or when a man, like Frederick Vyner, insists on transferring his own chance of escape from a murderous gang of brigands to his married friend, humanity at large rightly regards itself as his debtor, and ordinary men feel that their very nature has been ennobled and exalted by his example. But it is not only these acts of widely recognised heroism that exact a response from mankind. In many a domestic circle, there are men and women, who habitually sacrifice their own ease and comfort to the needs of an aged or sick or helpless relative, and, surely, it is not with scorn for their weakness that their neighbours, who know their privations, regard them, but with sympathy and respect for their patience and self-denial. The pecuniary risks and sacrifices which men are ready to make for one another, in the shape of sureties and bonds and loans and gifts, are familiar to us all, and, though these are often unscrupulously wrung from a thoughtless or over-pliant good-nature, yet there are many instances in which men knowingly, deliberately, and at considerable danger or loss to themselves, postpone their own security or convenience to the protection or relief of their friends. It is in cases of this kind, perhaps, that the line between weakness and generosity is most difficult to draw, and, where a man has others dependent on him for assistance or support, the weakness which yields to the solicitations of a reckless or unscrupulous friend may become positively culpable.

The last class of instances will be sufficient to shew that it is not always easy to determine where the good of others is greater than our own. Nor is it ever possible to determine this question with mathematical exactness. Men may, therefore, be at least excused if, before sacrificing their own interests or pleasures, they require that the good of others for which they make the sacrifice shall be plainly preponderant. And, even then, there is a wide margin between the acts which we praise for their heroism, or generosity, or self-denial, and those which we condemn for their baseness, or meanness, or selfishness. It must never be forgotten, in the treatment of questions of morality, that there is a large number of acts which we neither praise nor blame, and this is emphatically the case where the competition is between a man's own interests and those of his neighbours. We applaud generosity; we censure meanness: but there is a large intermediate class of acts which can neither be designated as generous nor mean. It will be observed that, in my enumeration of the classes of acts to which praise and blame, self-approbation and self-disapprobation attach, I have carefully drawn a distinction between the invariable connexion which obtains between certain acts and the ethical approval of ourselves or others, and the only general connexion which obtains between the omission of those acts and the ethical feeling of disapproval. Simply to fall short of the ethical standard which we approve neither merits nor receives censure, though there is a degree of deficiency, determined roughly by society at large and by each individual for himself, at which this indifference is converted into positive condemnation. A like neutral zone of acts which we neither applaud nor condemn, of course, exists also in the case of acts which simply affect ourselves or simply affect others, though it does not seem to be so extensive as in the case where the conflict of motives is between the interests of others and those of ourselves.

In determining the cases in which we shall subordinate our own interests to those of others, or do good to others at our own risk or loss, it is essential that we should take account of the remote as well as the immediate effects of actions; and, moreover, that we should enquire into their general tendencies, or, in other words, ask ourselves what would happen if everybody or many people acted as we propose to act. Thus, at first sight, it might seem as if a rich man, at a comparatively small sacrifice to himself, might promote the greater good of his poor neighbours by distributing amongst them what to them would be considerable sums of money. If I have ten thousand a year, why should I not make fifty poor families happy by endowing them with a hundred a year each, which to them would be a handsome competency? The loss of five thousand a year would be to me simply an abridgment of superfluous luxuries, which I could soon learn to dispense with, while to them the gain of a hundred a year would be the substitution of comfort for penury and of case for perpetual struggle. The answer is that, in the first place, I should probably not, in the long run, be making these families really happy. The change of circumstances would, undoubtedly, confer considerable pleasure, while it continued to be a novelty, but their improved circumstances, when they became accustomed to them, would soon be out-balanced by the ennui produced by want of employment; while, the motive to exertion being removed, and the taste for luxuries stimulated, they or the next generation would probably lapse again into poverty, which would be all the more keenly felt for their temporary enjoyment of prosperity. Moreover, I should be injuring the community at large, by withdrawing a number of persons from industrial employments and transferring them to the non-productive classes. Again, if the five thousand a year were withdrawn not from my personal expenditure, but from industrial enterprises in which I was engaged, I should be actually depriving the families of many workmen and artisans of the fruits of their honest labour for the purpose of enabling a smaller number of families to live in sloth and indolence. But, now, suppose the case I have imagined to become a general one, and that it was a common occurrence for rich men to dispense their superfluous wealth amongst their poorer neighbours, without demanding any return in labour or services. The result would inevitably be the creation of a large class of idle persons, who would probably soon become a torment to themselves, while their descendants, often brought up to no employment and with an insufficient income to support them, would probably lapse into pauperism. The effect on the community at large, if the evil became widely spread, would be the paralysis of trade and commerce. Of course, I am aware that these evils would be, to a certain extent, modified in practice by the good sense of the recipients, some of whom might employ their money on reproductive industries instead of on merely furnishing themselves with the means of living at their ease; but that the general tendency would be that which I have intimated no one, I think, who is acquainted with the indolent propensities of human nature, can well doubt. Similar results might be shewn to follow from an indiscriminate distribution of charity on a smaller scale. It seems hard-hearted to refuse a shilling to a beggar, or a guinea to a charitable association, when one would hardly miss the sum at the end of the week or the month. But, if we could trace all the consequences, direct and remote, of these apparent acts of benevolence, we should often see that the small act of sacrifice on our own part was by no means efficacious in promoting the 'greater good' of the recipient, and still less of society at large. A life of vagrancy or indolence may easily be made more attractive than one of honest industry, and well-meant efforts to anticipate all the wants and misfortunes of the poor may often have the effect of making them careless of the future and of destroying all elements of independence and providence in their character. Another instance of the contrast between the immediate and remote, or apparent and real, results of acts of intended beneficence is to be found in the prodigality with which well-to-do persons often distribute gratuities amongst servants. These gratuities have the immediate effect of giving gratification to the recipients and securing better service to the donors, but they have often the remote and more permanent effect of rendering the recipients servile and corrupt, and (as in the case of railway porters) of depriving poorer or less prodigal persons of services to which they are equally entitled.

In adducing these illustrations, I must not be understood to be advocating or defending a selfish employment of superfluous wealth, but to be shewing the evils which may result from an unenlightened benevolence, and the importance of ascertaining that the 'greater good of others,' to which we sacrifice our own interests or enjoyments, is a real, and not merely an apparent good, and, moreover, that our conduct, if it became general, would promote the welfare of the community at large, and not merely particular sections of it to the injury of the rest.

To sum up the results of this chapter, we may repeat that we must distinguish carefully between the intellectual act of moral judgment, or the judgment we pass on matters of conduct, and the emotional act of moral feeling, or the feeling which supervenes upon that judgment, and that, so far as we can give a precise definition of the latter, it is an indirect or reflex form of one or other of the sympathetic, resentful, or self-regarding feelings, occurring when, on consideration, we realise that, in matters involving a conflict of motives and of sufficient importance to arrest our attention and stimulate our reflexion, one or other of these feelings has been gratified or thwarted: moreover, that we praise, in the case of others, and approve, in our own case, all those actions of the above kind, in which a man subordinates his own lower to his higher good, or his own good to the greater good of others, or, when the interests only of others are at stake, the lesser good of some to the greater good of others, as well as, under certain circumstances, those actions in which he refuses to subordinate his own greater good to the lesser good of others; while we blame, in the case of others, and disapprove, in our own case, all those actions of the above kind, in which he manifestly and distinctly (for there is a large neutral zone of actions, which we neither applaud nor condemn) subordinates his own higher to his lower good, or the greater good of others to his own lesser good, or, where the interests only of others are at stake, the greater good of some to the lesser good of others, or, lastly, under certain circumstances, the lesser good of others to the greater good of himself, especially where that greater good is the good of his higher nature.

Even at the present stage of our enquiry, it must be tolerably evident to the reader that moral progress, if such a fact exist, will be due mainly to the increasing accuracy and the extended applications of our moral judgments, or, in other words, to the development of the rational rather than the emotional element in the ethical act. The moral feeling follows on the moral judgment, and awards praise or blame, experiences satisfaction or dissatisfaction, in accordance with the intellectual decisions which have preceded it. The character of the feeling, therefore, as distinct from its intensity, is already determined for it by a previous process. And its intensity is undoubtedly greater amongst primitive and uneducated men than it is in civilized life. Amongst ourselves, not only are the feelings of approbation and disapprobation themselves largely modified by the account we take of mixed motives, qualifying circumstances, and the like, but the expression of, them is still further restrained by the caution which the civilized man habitually practises in the presence of others. Indeed, great, in many respects, as are the advantages of this moderation and restraint, there is a certain danger that, as civilisation advances, the approval of virtue and the disapproval of vice may cease to be expressed in sufficiently plain and emphatic terms. But, on the other hand, with the extension of experience and the ever-improving discipline of the intellectual faculties, the moral judgment, we may already presume (for the confirmation of this presumption I must refer to the next chapter), will always be growing in accuracy, receiving further applications, and becoming a more and more adequate representative of facts. The analysis, therefore, of the moral act, with which we have been mainly engaged in the foregoing chapter, besides being essential to the determination of any theoretical problem of ethics, has a most important practical bearing from the indication which it affords of the direction in which moral progress is, in the future, most likely to be found.

It must never be forgotten, however, that men may know what is right and do what is wrong, and, hence, the due stimulation of the moral emotions, so that they may respond to the improved moral judgments, is at once an indispensable branch of moral education and an indispensable condition of moral progress. But this is the function, not so much of the scientific moralist, as of the parent, the instructor of youth, the poet, the dramatist, the novelist, the journalist, the artist, and, above all, of the religious teacher.



The moral feeling, as we have seen, follows immediately and necessarily on the moral judgment. But what considerations guide the moral judgment? Our moral judgments, as we have also seen, are the result of a logical process of reference to a class or of association with similars. This particular action is like certain other actions, or belongs to a class of actions, which we habitually regard as right or wrong, and, consequently, as soon as the reference or association is made, the moral feeling supervenes. Now, in this process, there are two possible sources of error. In the first place, the act of reference or association may be faulty, and the action

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse