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Progressive Morality by Thomas Fowler

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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

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

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

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

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

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 may not really belong to the class to which we
refer or really be like the other actions with which we associate it.
This fault is one of classification, and can only be remedied, as all
other faulty acts of classification, by learning to discriminate between
the essential and the non-essential marks of similarity, and insisting
on the presence of the essential marks. In criminal cases, this is one
of the functions of the jury, and, unless they exercise great care, they
may easily be mistaken as to whether an alleged act of fraud, theft,
assault, &c., was really an act of that kind. But, even if the action be
referred to its right head, there remains the second question whether we
are really justified in regarding the class of actions itself as right
or wrong. Failure to prosecute for or punish heresy or witchcraft was at
one time regarded at least as wrong as failure to punish or prosecute
for theft or murder would now be. To decline to fight a duel was, till
quite recently, to place yourself outside the pale of gentlemen. A
reluctance to sacrifice herself on the funeral pile of her dead husband
was, till the practice of Suttee was abolished by the British
government, one of the most immoral traits which a Brahman widow could
exhibit. Now, have we any means of discriminating, and, if so, how do we
discriminate, between those acts which are really, and those which are
only reputed, right or wrong? That there is great need of such a test,
if it can be discovered, is plain. The wide divergences of opinion on
matters of conduct in different ages, in different countries, in
different classes of society, and even amongst men of the same class In
the same country and at the same time, shew at once the vast importance
of ascertaining some common measure of actions, and that there is no
uniform rule of right and wrong to be found in the human mind itself. If
there is such a rule, it must be derived from some external
considerations, and, if there is no such rule, then morality must be, to
a large extent, a matter of prejudice, fancy, and caprice. Now I
conceive that there is a simple mode of ascertaining whether there is
any test of actions other than the merely subjective determinations of
our own minds, or, in other words, whether there are any reasons or
external considerations by which the mind guides itself in its decisions
on matters of conduct. Do our moral opinions merely vary, or do they
grow? Is there any progress to be traced in morality, or does it simply
oscillate, within certain limits, round a fixed point? If some 'simple'
and 'innate' idea of right, or some universal sense, were the test of
morality, then we might expect that the moral decisions of all men would
be uniform, or, at least, approximately uniform; if, on the other hand,
there were no test at all, or, what amounts to much the same thing, a
merely personal test, then we might expect that the moral judgments of
mankind would vary arbitrarily according to the disposition and
temperament of each individual man. But, if there be a test derived from
external considerations and capable of being applied to particular cases
by the ordinary processes of reasoning, then we may fairly expect that,
as the opportunities of observation and experience increase, the test
will be applied more widely and more accurately, and that the science of
conduct will grow, like all other sciences, with the advance of
knowledge and of general civilisation. Now, what, as a mutter of fact,
has been the case? Can anyone affect to doubt that the morality of
civilized countries is far higher and purer, and far better adapted to
secure the preservation and progress of society, than the customs of
savage or barbaric tribes? Or, however enamoured a man may be of
classical antiquity, is there any one who would be prepared to change
the ethical code and the prevailing ethical sentiment of modern times
for those of the Greeks or Romans? Or, again, should we be willing, in
this respect, to go back three hundred, or two hundred, or even one
hundred years in our own history? Are not the abolition of slavery, the
improved and improving treatment of captives taken in war, of women and
children, of the distressed and unfortunate, and even of the lower
animals, alone sufficient to mark the difference between the morality of
earlier and of later times? I shall assume, then, that there is a test
of conduct, and that this test is of such a character that its continued
application, by individual thinkers or by mankind at large, consciously
or semi-consciously, is sufficient to account for the existence of a
progressive morality. But, if so, it must be a test which experience
enables us to apply with increasing accuracy, and which is derived from
external considerations, or, in other words, from the observation of the
effects and tendencies of actions. And here I may observe,
parenthetically, that to make 'conscience' or 'moral reason' or 'moral
sense' the test of action, as, for instance, Bishop Butler appears to do
in the case of conscience, is, even on the supposition of the
independent existence of these so-called 'faculties,' to confound the
judge with the law which governs his decisions, the 'faculty' with the
rules in accordance with which it operates. Limiting ourselves,
therefore, to a test which is derived from a consideration of the
results, direct and indirect, immediate and remote, of our actions, we
simply have to enquire what is the characteristic in these results which
men have in view when they try to act rightly, and which they mistake,
ignore, or lose sight of, when they act wrongly.

There are, in the main, three answers to this question, though they are
rather different modes, I conceive, of presenting the same idea, than
distinct and independent explanations. It may be said that we look to
the manner in which the action will affect the happiness or pleasure of
those whom it concerns, or their welfare or well-being, or the
development or perfection of their character. Now it seems to me that
these are by no means necessarily antagonistic modes of speaking, and
that, in attempting to determine the test of right action, they are all
useful as complementing each other. There is, however, a view of the
measure of actions which, though derived from external considerations,
is opposed to them all, and which it may be desirable to notice at once,
with the object of eliminating it from our enquiry. It is that we are
only concerned with actions so far as they affect ourselves, and that,
providing we observe the law of the land, which will punish us if we do
not observe it, we are under no further obligations to our
fellow-citizens. This paradox, for such it is, has mainly acquired
notoriety though the advocacy of Hobbes, though it has sometimes been
ignorantly attributed to Bentham and other writers of what is called the
utilitarian school. But, be this as it may, it is so plainly
inconsistent with some of the most obvious facts of human nature, and
specially with the existence of that large and essential group of
emotions which we call the sympathetic feelings, as well as with the
constitution of family, social, and civic life, that it is unnecessary
here further to discuss it. The views now generally accepted as to the
origin of society in the family or tribal relations are alike
irreconcileable with the selfish psychology from which Hobbes educes his
system of morality and with that 'state of nature in which every man was
at war with every man' from which he traces the growth of law and
government. Reverting, therefore, to those tests of conduct which
recognise, the independent existence of social as well as self-regarding
springs of action, I shall now make some remarks on the appropriateness
and adequacy, for the purpose of designating such tests, of the three
classes of terms, noticed above. To begin with happiness or pleasure.
Taking happiness to mean the balance of pleasures over pains, and
degrees of happiness the proportions of this balance, it will be
sufficient if I confine myself to the word 'pleasure.' One statement,
then, of the test of the morality or rightness of an action is that it
should result in a larger amount of pleasure than pain to all those whom
it affects. But it is at once objected that there is the greatest
variety of pleasures and pains, intellectual, moral, aesthetic,
sympathetic, sensual, and so on; and it is asked how are we to determine
their respective values, and to strike the balance between the
conflicting kinds? How much sensual pleasure would compensate for the
pangs of an evil conscience, or what amount of intellectual enjoyment
would allay the cravings of hunger or thirst? The only escape from this
difficulty is frankly to acknowledge that there are some pleasures and
pains which are incommensurable with one other, and that, therefore,
where they are concerned, we must forego the attempt at comparison, and
so act as to compass the immeasurably greater pleasure or avoid the
immeasurably greater pain. Especially is this the case with the
pleasures and pains attendant on the exercise of the moral feelings. A
man who is tormented with the recollection of having committed a great
crime will, as the phrase goes, 'take pleasure in nothing;' while,
similarly, a man who is enjoying the retrospect of having done his duty,
in some important crisis, will care little for obloquy or even for the
infliction of physical suffering. Making this admission, then, as well
as recognising the fact that our pleasures differ in quality as well as
in volume, so that the pleasures of the higher part of our nature, the
religious, the intellectual, the moral, the aesthetic, the sympathetic
nature, affect us with a different kind of enjoyment from the sensual
pleasures, or those which are derived from them, we may rightly regard
the tendency to produce a balance of pleasure over pain as the test of
the goodness of an action, and the effort and intention to perform acts
having this tendency as the test of the morality of the agent. But when
we enunciate the production of pleasure as our aim, or the balance of
pleasure-producing over pain-producing results as the test of right
action, we are not always understood to have admitted these
explanations, and, consequently, there is always a danger of our being
supposed to degrade morality by identifying it with the gratification,
in ourselves and others, of the coarser and more material impulses of
our nature. Though, then, if due distinctions and admissions be made,
the tendency to produce, in the long run, the greatest amount of
happiness or misery, pleasure or pain, may be taken as the test of the
goodness or badness of an action, the phraseology is so misleading, and
so liable to frustrate the practical objects of the moralist, that it is
desirable, if possible, to find terms not equally lending themselves to
misinterpretation and perversion. Let us now, then, consider whether we
are supplied with such terms in the phrases 'perfection' or
'development' of 'character.' It is a noble idea of human action to
suppose that its end is the perfection of individual men, or the
development of their various capacities to the utmost extent that is
available. And yet, as the phrases 'pleasure' and 'happiness' are apt
too exclusively to suggest material well-being and the gratification of
the more animal parts of our nature, so the phrases 'perfection' or
'development' of 'character' are apt altogether to keep out of sight
these necessary pre-suppositions of a healthy and progressive condition
of humanity. Unless there were some standard of comfortable living, and
a constant effort not only to maintain but to improve it, and unless
some zest were given to every-day life by the gratification of the
appetites, within reasonable limits, and the endeavour to obtain the
means of indulging them, men, constituted as they are, would be in
danger of sinking into sloth, squalor, and indigence, and, to the great
mass of mankind, the opportunity of developing and perfecting their
higher nature would never occur. We seem, therefore, to require some
term which will not only suggest the highest results of moral endeavour,
but also the conditions which, in the case of humanity, are essential to
the attainment of those results. Moreover, to a greater extent even than
the words 'pleasure' and 'happiness,' the expressions 'perfection' and
'development' of 'character' are in danger of being supposed to imply an
exclusive reference to self. It is true that we cannot properly develope
our characters, much less attain to all the perfection of which they are
capable, without quickening the moral feeling and giving larger scope to
the sympathetic emotions; but, in the mere attempt to improve their own
nature, men are very apt to lose sight of their relations to others. The
phrases ought, however, to be taken, and usually are intended to be
taken, to include the effort to improve the character of others as well
as our own; and if this extension of their meaning be well understood,
and it is also understood that the development or perfection of
character implies certain conditions of material comfort and the
gratification, within reasonable limits, of our appetitive nature, there
ought to be no objection on the part of the moralist to their employment
for the purpose of designating the test of right conduct; and, any way,
they are useful as supplementing, correcting, and elevating the
associations attached to the more commonly employed terms, pleasure and
happiness. But are there no terms by which the somewhat exclusive
associations connected with the two sets of phrases already examined may
be avoided? I venture to suggest that such terms may be found by
reverting to the old, but now usually discarded, expressions 'welfare'
and 'well-being.' These words, it seems to me, do not primarily suggest
material prosperity, like happiness, nor the gratification of the lower
parts of our nature, like pleasure, nor the exclusive development of the
higher parts of our nature, like perfection, but cover the whole ground
of healthy human activity and the conditions which are favourable to it.
Corresponding, too, almost exactly with the [Greek: eudaimonia] of
Aristotle, they have the advantage of venerable historic associations.
Lastly, they seem to have less of a personal and more of a social
reference than any of the other terms employed. We speak, I think, more
naturally of the well-being or welfare of society, than of the
happiness, pleasure, or perfection of society. I cannot, therefore, but
think that the moralist would be wise in at least trying the experiment
of recurring to these terms in place of those which, in recent systems
of ethics, have usually superseded them. If it be said that they are
vague, and that different people will attach different meanings to them,
according to their own prepossessions and their own theories of life, I
can only reply that this objection applies with at least equal force to
any of the other terms which we have passed in review. And, if it be
said that our conceptions of well-being and welfare are not fixed, but
that our ideas of the nature and proper proportions of their
constituents are undergoing constant modification and growth, I may ask
if this is less the case with regard to happiness, or the sum of
pleasures, or the balance of pleasures over pains, or the perfection or
due development of human character, all of which expressions, indeed,
when properly qualified and explained, I acknowledge to be the
equivalents of those for which I have stated a preference. And here
occurs a difficulty with respect to all these expressions and ideas. If
their meaning or content is not fixed, and specially if they are
undergoing a constant change, in the way of growth, with the progress of
reason and society, how can we employ them as a test of morality, which
is itself also a variable conception? Surely this is to make one
indefinite idea the gauge of another indefinite idea. The answer to this
question will, I trust, bring out clearly the nature of a moral test, as
well as the different modes of its application.

The ultimate origin of moral rules, I conceive, so far at least as
science can trace them, is to be found in the effort of men to adapt
themselves to the circumstances, social and physical, in which they are
placed. At first, probably, this process of adaptation was almost
automatic and unconscious, but, when men once began consciously to adapt
means to ends, they would soon begin to reflect on their acts, and to
ask themselves the reasons why they had selected this course of conduct
rather than another. The justifying reasons of their past acts, like the
impelling motives of their future acts, could have reference to nothing
but the convenience or gratification of themselves or those amongst whom
they lived. And the acts which they justified in themselves they would
approve of in others. Here, then, already we have a test consciously
applied to the estimation of conduct. Experience shews that this or that
action promotes some object which is included in the narrow conception
of well-being entertained by the primitive man. He, therefore, continues
to act in accordance with the rule which prescribes it, or the habit
from which it proceeds. And, in like manner, if he finds from experience
that the action does not promote that object, and he is free to exercise
his own choice, he desists from it and, perhaps, tries the experiment of
substituting another. Now, in these cases, it is plain that any judgment
which the man exercises independently, and apart from the society of
which he is a member, is guided solely by the consideration whether the
course of conduct is efficacious in attaining its end, that end being
part of his conception of the well-being of himself, his family, or his
tribe. If he thinks about the matter for himself at all, this is the
only consideration of which he can take account. There are three courses
open to him. He need not reflect on the action at all, but simply follow
in the wake of his neighbours (and this, of course, is far the commonest
case); or, if there is any divergence of opinion about it amongst his
neighbours, he may deliberate as to whose opinion it is safest to
follow; or, lastly, he may consider for himself, whether the action is
really the best means of attaining the end aimed at, that is to say, he
may test the means by its conduciveness to the end, which is always, in
some shape, the welfare of himself or others. If he follows the opinion
of others, it is plain that their opinion, so far as it has been formed
independently, has been formed in the manner above described. The only
alternative, therefore, is between the acceptance of existing opinions,
without any consideration or examination, and their reference to the
conception of well-being, or however else the idea may be expressed, as
a measure of their appropriateness and sufficiency. The idea of
well-being itself may be inadequate, and even in parts incorrect, and,
as society advances, it is undoubtedly undergoing a constant process of
expansion and rectification; but it seems to me that this regard for
their own welfare or that of others, however we may phrase it, is the
only guiding-principle of conduct, in the light of which men can
reconsider and review their rules. Unless they follow the mere blind
impulses of feeling (in which case they do not follow rules at all, but
simply act irrationally), or else observe implicitly the maxims of
conduct which they find prevalent around them, they must, and can only,
ask the question whether it is possible to alter their conduct for the
better, that is to say, whether they can better promote their own
welfare or that of others by some modification of their actions. Take
the case of Slavery. There was a time when savage or barbaric tribes,
moved by a regard to their own interests, and also, we may trust,
touched by some compassion for their victims, began to substitute, for
the wholesale butchery of their enemies defeated in war, the practice of
retaining some or all of them for the purposes of domestic or agrarian
service. Again, there came a time when, viewed by the side of other
forms of service which had meanwhile come into existence, slavery, with
its various incidents, began to shock the philanthropic sentiments of
the more civilized races of mankind, while the question also began to be
raised whether slave-labour was not economically at a disadvantage, when
compared with free labour, and the result of these combined
considerations, often aided by a strong and enthusiastic outburst of
popular feeling, has been the total disappearance of slavery amongst
civilized, and its almost total disappearance even amongst barbaric or
semi-civilized races. Take, too, the revolting practice, common among
many savage tribes, past and present, of killing and eating aged parents
or other infirm members of the tribe, when engaged in war. This practice
which, at first sight, seems so utterly unnatural, was doubtless
dictated, in part at least, by the desire to save their victims from the
worse fate of being tortured and mutilated by their enemies.
Subsequently, in the history of some of these tribes, there has come a
time when it has been discovered that a more humane mode of attaining
the same object is to build strong places and leave the feebler folk at
home. If we follow the varying marriage customs of savage or barbaric
tribes, we shall find, in the same way, that they have always been
originally framed on reasons of convenience, and that, when they have
been changed, it has been because different views of well-being,
including the needs of purity, closer attachment, increased care of
children, and the like, have begun to prevail. In all these examples,
which might be multiplied to any extent, it is plain that changes of
conduct are moulded and determined by changes of opinion as to what is
best and most suitable for the circumstances of the individual, the
family, the tribe, or whatever the social aggregate may be. And I may
venture to affirm that, wherever any change of moral conduct takes
place, unless it be dictated by blind passion, or mere submission to
authority, enforced or voluntary, the change is invariably due to some
change of opinion on what constitutes the advantage of the persons whom
it affects. It is true, therefore, that moral conduct varies, and it is
true that our conceptions of well-being vary, but the two do not vary
independently of one another, or either of them capriciously. Increased
experience of ourselves and of others, enlarged observation of the
external world, more matured reflexion are constantly expanding and
rectifying our conceptions of what constitutes human welfare, and to
this constantly amended conception are readjusted, from time to time,
our conduct and our sentiments on the conduct both of ourselves and of
others. In brief, then, the conduct of men and the sentiments of men on
conduct vary with their conceptions of well-being, and their conceptions
of well-being are determined by experience (including the opportunity
for experience) and reflexion.

My conclusion may, perhaps, be illustrated and enforced by one further
consideration. It generally happens, in the progress of society, that,
after a number of rules of conduct have been accumulated, they become
enshrined in some sacred book, some code, or, at least, some constant
and authoritative tradition. In this manner they may be stereotyped for
ages. Now, after a time, these rules, especially if they are numerous
and minute, become unsuited, at least in part, to the altered
circumstances of the society, and probably bear hardly on many of the
individuals composing it. When this condition of things is beginning to
be intolerable, there often arises the social reformer, and what is the
course which he pursues? He endeavours to shew how unsuitable the rules
have become to attain the ends which they were originally intended to
compass, in how much better a manner other rules would attain these
objects, how grievously the present rules bear on many classes and
individuals in the state, how unequal they are in their incidence, at
what a disadvantage they place the community in comparison with
neighbouring communities, how easily they may be altered, and the like.
In fact, the considerations which he urges may all be included in the
one argument that the existing rules are opposed to the well-being of
the state, and that the advantages resulting from their abrogation will
more than compensate for any disturbance of existing relations which may
ensue from the change. Apart from force, or mere rant, rhetoric, or
imposture, it is difficult to see what other resource the reformer has
open to him. And, in those cases where there is no accumulation of
antiquated rules and no need of the individual reformer, but where
society at large has the happy knack of imperceptibly accommodating its
practice and principles of action to altered circumstances, there can be
no doubt that it is by considerations of well-being, half conscious
though the process of application may be, that the change is directed.
The plastic power by which men accommodate their actions and even their
maxims of conduct to modifications in surrounding circumstances is one
of the advantages which they gain by the progress of civilisation. In
ancient society the tyranny of custom is often almost absolute. In
modern society changes, which would otherwise require the drastic hand
of the reformer, are often quietly effected by the gradual and almost
imperceptible action of the people themselves. It is thus that the
equity branch of English law, and much of our case law, grew up, giving
expression to changes which had already occurred in the current of
popular opinion. It is thus that the obligation of 'gentlemen' to offer,
on the slightest provocation, and to accept, without questioning, a
'challenge' to take each other's lives, has, in most civilized
countries, now grown obsolete, having gradually become enfeebled
together with the exaggerated military spirit which gave it birth. It is
thus also that, with an increase of the industrial spirit, with softened
manners, and with that quickening of our sympathetic nature which has
gradually been effected by the teaching of Christianity, a strong
sentiment against slavery, a respect for human life as such, a regard
for the weak, the suffering, the oppressed, and many tender feelings of
a similar kind, have almost insensibly been developed as an essential
element in modern civilisation.

These considerations naturally lead me to notice the two different ways
in which the test of conduct may be, and as a fact is, applied. One mode
is the conscious and intentional application of it by the reflective
man. The other is the semi-conscious and almost instinctive application
of it by the community at large. In morals, as in the arts, men, almost
without knowing it, are constantly re-adjusting their means to their
ends, feeling their way to some tentative solution of a new difficulty
or a better solution of an old one, shaping their conduct with reference
to the special needs of the situation in which they are placed. It is
thus, for the most part, that new circumstances develope new rules, and
that the simple maxims of a primitive people are gradually replaced by
the multifarious code of law and morals with which we are now familiar.
The guiding principle throughout the process is the conception of their
own good, comprehending, as it does, not only ease, personal comfort,
and gratification of the various appetites and desires, which, in the
early stages of society, are the preponderating considerations, but also
those higher constituents of welfare, both individual and social, which
attain an ever-increasing importance as society advances, such as are
the development of the moral, the intellectual, and the aesthetic
faculties; the purification of the religious sentiments, the expansion
of the sympathetic feelings, the diffusion of liberty and prosperity,
the consolidation of national unity, the elevation of human life. This
principle works throughout the community, actuating some men in its
higher, others in its lower forms; but, except where the force of
tradition or prejudice is too strong for it, invariably moulding conduct
into accordance with the more complex requirements of advancing
civilisation. Its action, of course, is not wholly advantageous. Growing
needs and more complicated relations suggest to men fresh devices for
compassing their selfish ends, such as the various forms of fraud,
forgery, and conspiracy, as well as more enlarged or more effective
schemes of beneficence, stricter or more intelligent applications of the
principle of justice, and possibilities of higher and freer developments
of their faculties. But, on the whole, and setting aside as exceptional
certain periods of retrogression, such as the decline of the Roman
Empire, the evolution of society seems to be attended by the progress of
morality, and specially by the amelioration of social relations, whether
between individuals, families, or states. The intelligence that
apprehends the greater good re-acts upon the desire to attain it, and
the result is the combination of more rational aims with a purer
interest in the pursuit of them.

This tendency in society at large to modify and re-adjust its conduct in
conformity with fuller and more improved conceptions of well-being,
which are themselves suggested by a growing experience, is reinforced,
especially in the later stages of civilisation, by the consciously
reflective action of philosophers and reformers. It is the function of
these classes not only to give expression to the thoughts which are
working obscurely in the minds of other men, but also to detect those
aspects and bearings of conduct which are not obvious to the general
intelligence. This task is effected partly by tracing actions to their
indirect and remote results, partly by more distinctly realising their
results, whether immediate or remote, direct or indirect, and partly by
generalising them, that is to say, by considering what would happen to
society if men generally were to act in that manner. Thus, take the case
of lying. In primitive states of society, and even in some more advanced
nations, no great opprobrium attaches to telling a lie. In ancient
Greece, for instance, veracity by no means occupied the same prominent
position among the virtues that it does among ourselves, and, even now,
Teutonic races are generally credited with a peculiar sensitiveness on
the subject of truthfulness. This improved sentiment as regards veracity
is, no doubt, partly due to the realisation of its importance and of the
inconveniences which result from the breaches of it, especially in
commercial affairs, by the members of a community at large; but it must
also, to a great extent, have been produced by the definite teaching
conveyed in books, and by moral and religious instructors. Follow out a
lie to all its consequences, realise the feelings of the person deceived
by it, when he has discovered the deception, above all, consider what
would be the result if men were commonly to deceive one another, and no
man could place any dependence on the information which his neighbour
gave him; and then a falsehood excites very different feelings from what
it does when regarded simply as an isolated act. Or, again, take the
evasion of taxes. There is probably, even yet, no country in which the
popular sentiment on this subject is sufficiently enlightened and
severe. A man smuggles a box of cigars, or evades paying a tax for his
dog, or makes an insufficient return of his income, and few of his
neighbours, if the fact come to their knowledge, think the worse of him.
The character and consequences of the action are not obvious, and hence
they do not perceive what, on reflexion, or, if guided by proper
instruction, they could hardly fail to realise, that the act is really a
theft, only practised on the community at large instead of on an
individual member of it, and that, if every one were to act in the same
way, the collection of taxes and, consequently, the administration and
defence of the country, the maintenance of its army and navy, its
police, its harbours and roads, would become an impossibility, and it
would quickly relapse into barbarism. Other familiar instances of the
advantage to be derived from the conscious and intentional application
of the reasoning powers to matters of conduct may be found in the
successive reforms of the penal code of any civilized country, or in the
abolition of slavery. Punishment is, in all very early stages of
society, capricious, mostly unregulated by any definite customs or
enactments, and, consequently, often disproportioned, either in the way
of excess or defect, to the character of the offence. As the community
advances in complexity and intelligence, successive reformers arise who
attempt, by definite enactment, to regulate the amount of punishment due
to each description of offence, and, from time to time, to increase or
diminish, as occasion seems to require, the severity of the existing
code. The considerations by which, at least in our own time, these
reforms are determined are such as these: the adequacy or inadequacy of
the punishment to deter men from the commission of the offence, the
tendency of excessive punishment to produce a reaction of sentiment in
favour of the criminal, and a reluctance on the part of the judge or
jury to convict, the superfluous suffering inflicted by that part of the
punishment which is in excess of the requirements of the case, due
publicity and notoriety as a means of warning others, the reform of the
criminal himself, and so on. All these considerations, it will be
observed, are derived from tracing the effects of the punishment either
on the criminal himself, or on persons who are under a similar
temptation to commit the crime, or on the sentiment of society at large,
or of that portion of society which is connected with the administration
of justice, and it is only by the exercise of great circumspection, and
of a keen intelligence on the part of the statesman, the jurist, or the
moralist, that grave errors can be avoided, and an adequate estimate of
the probable results can be formed. The mere instinct of the community,
unmodified and uncorrected by the conscious speculations of its more
thoughtful members, would be in much danger of either causing a large
amount of needless suffering to the criminal, or of seriously
diminishing the security of society. It would almost certainly be guilty
of grave inequalities in the apportionment of punishment to specific
crimes. The history of slavery similarly shews the importance of the
functions of the moralist and the reformer. It must have been at the
suggestion of some prominent member of a tribe, whose intelligence was
in advance of that of his fellows, that men first took to capturing
their defeated enemies, with a view to future service, instead of
slaughtering them on the field of battle. And we know that, in the time
of Plato and Aristotle, there had already arisen a strong sentiment
against the enslaving of Greeks by Greeks, originating probably in the
instinctive sympathy of race, but quickened and fostered, doubtless, by
the superior capacity which men possess of realising suffering and
misfortune in those who are constituted and endowed like themselves, by
the new conception of a Pan-hellenic unity, and by the vivid sense
which, on reflexion, the citizens of each state must have entertained of
their own liability to be reduced, in turn, to the same condition. In
modern times, the movement which has led to the entire abolition of
slavery in civilized countries owes much, undoubtedly, to the softened
manners and wider sympathies of a society largely transformed by the
combined operation of Christianity and culture, but it has been
promoted, to no inconsiderable degree, by conscious reflexion and direct
argument. Social and religious reasons, derived from the community of
nature and origin in man, reinforced by a vivid realisation of the
sufferings of others, and appealing forcibly to the tender and
sympathetic feelings, have co-operated with the economical
considerations drawn from the wastefulness and comparative inefficiency
of slave labour, and with what may be called the self-regarding reason
of the hardening and debasing effect of slave-owning on the character of
the slave-owner himself.

It will be sufficient, in this connexion, simply to allude to the ideals
of mercy, purity, humility, long-suffering, and self-denial, which are
pourtrayed in the Christian teaching and have, ever since the early days
of Christianity, exercised so vast and powerful an influence on large
sections of mankind.

There is, of course, a process of constant Interaction going on between
the two elements in the constitution of moral sentiment which I have
been attempting to describe. The circumstances, opinions, and feelings
of the society of which he is a member, must necessarily contribute to
determine the opinions and feelings, the character and aims, of the
moralist or the reformer. In turn, the moralist or reformer modifies,
corrects, and elevates the current moral sentiment of those who are
brought within the influence of his work. And this result is usually a
permanent one. When the average moral sentiment on a particular point of
conduct has been consciously raised, and the change is fully realised,
it seldom happens that it afterwards recedes, though the automatic or
semi-conscious adaptations of society to new needs and circumstances,
when regarded from a more general point of view, are not infrequently
found to be regressive as well as progressive. Thus, though we may
imagine the distinctions between the different classes of society
becoming more numerous or more accentuated (as I believe to have
actually occurred in England during the present century), or the evasion
of taxation becoming more general than it at present is, we can hardly
conceive a recurrence to slavery, or a needless increase in the severity
of punishments, or a revival of the hard-drinking habits of the last
century. When society is fully aware of its moral gains, it is not
likely knowingly to surrender them. Hence, allowing for occasional
oscillations and for possible exceptions in certain departments of
conduct, morality, as a whole, almost necessarily advances with the
general progress of intelligence.

It is not altogether easy to adjust the respective claims of society at
large and of the individual thinker in the constitution of moral theory,
or, in other words, to determine the limits within which the speculative
moralist may legitimately endeavour to reform the existing moral
sentiment. It is plain that it must be open to the moralist, and, in
fact, to every intelligent citizen, to criticize the current morality,
or else moral progress, even if it took place at all, would, on many
points of conduct, be exceedingly slow. But, on the other hand, it is
equally plain that a constant discussion of the accepted rules of
conduct would weaken the moral sentiment, lessen the sense of
obligation, and suggest a general uncertainty as to the validity of the
maxims which, in their relations to one another, men usually take for
granted. Hence, though it would be almost fatal to moral progress to
discourage speculation on moral topics, the moralist must always bear in
mind that his task is one which is not lightly to be undertaken, and
that, with an exception to be noticed presently, the presumption should
always be in favour of existing rules of conduct. If for no other
reason, this presumption ought to be made on the practical ground that a
disturbance of the moral sentiment on one point is likely to weaken its
force generally, and, before we expose men to this danger, we ought to
have some adequate justification. But there is also the speculative
ground that any given society, and indeed mankind generally, has been
engaged for ages in feeling its way, instinctively or semi-consciously,
towards a solution of the self-same problems which the philosopher is
attempting to solve consciously and of set purpose. That, on the whole,
a society has solved these problems in the manner best suited to its
existing needs and circumstances may fairly be taken for granted, and,
even where the ethical stand-point of the reformer is very superior to
the stand-point of the society which he wishes to reform, he will be
wise in endeavouring to introduce his reforms gradually, and, if
possible, in connexion with principles already acknowledged, rather than
in attempting to effect a moral revolution, the ultimate results of
which it may be impossible to foresee. The work of the moralist is,
therefore, best regarded as corrective of, and supplementary to, the
work which mankind is constantly doing for itself, and not as
antagonistic to it. The method is the same in both cases: only it is
applied semi-consciously, and merely as occasions suggest it, in the one
case; consciously and spontaneously in the other. In both cases alike
the guiding principle, whether of action or of speculation upon action,
is the adaptation of conduct to surrounding circumstances, physical and
social, with a view to promote, to the utmost extent possible, the
well-being of the individual and of the society of which he is a member.
Where the interests of the individual and of the society clash, society,
that is to say, a man's fellow-citizens, usually approves, as we saw in
the last chapter, of the sacrifice of individual to social interests, a
course of conduct which is also, on reflexion, usually stamped by the
individual's own approbation, and hence we may say briefly that their
tendency to promote or impair the welfare of society is the test by
which, in different ways, all actions are estimated alike by the
philosopher, in his hours of speculation, and by the community at large,
in the practical work of life.

In laying down the principle that the presumption of the moralist should
always be in favour of existing rules of conduct, I intimated that there
was one exception to this principle. The exception includes all those
cases which are legitimate, though not obvious, applications of existing
rules, and to which, therefore, the ordinary moral sentiment does not
attach in the same way that it does to the plainer and more direct
applications. Thus, if it can be shewn, as it undoubtedly can be, that
smuggling falls under the head of stealing, and holding out false hopes
under that of lying, the moralist need take no account of the lax moral
sentiment which exists with regard to these practices, though, of
course, in estimating the guilt of the individual as distinct from the
character of the act, due allowance must be made for his imperfect
appreciation of the moral bearings of his conduct. This exception, as
will be found in the next chapter, covers, and therefore at once
justifies, a large proportion of the criticisms which, in the present

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