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RECENT TENDENCIES IN ETHICS

Three Lectures to Clergy Given at Cambridge

BY

W. R. SORLEY, M.A. HON. LL.D. EDIN.

Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy

MCMIV





PREFACE


These lectures were given to a summer meeting of clergy, held at
Cambridge in the month of July last. Some passages have been added as
they were written out for the press, and the crudities of the spoken
word have, I hope, been pruned away; but, in other respects, the
original plan of the lectures has been retained. They are now
published in the hope that they may prove of interest to those who
heard them, and to others who may desire an account, in short compass
and in popular form, of some leading features of the ethical thought
of the present day.

It is inevitable for such an account to be controversial: otherwise it
could not give a true picture of contemporary opinion. Intellectual
and social causes have conspired to accentuate traditional differences
in ethics, and to make the questions in dispute penetrate to the very
heart of morality. It has been my aim to trace the new influences
which are at work, and to estimate the value of the ethical doctrines
to which they have seemed to lead. The estimate has taken the form of
a criticism, but the criticism is in the interests of construction.

W.R. SORLEY.

CAMBRIDGE, 7th March, 1904.




CONTENTS.

I. CHARACTERISTICS
II. ETHICS AND EVOLUTION
III. ETHICS AND IDEALISM

INDEX






I.

CHARACTERISTICS.


A survey of ethical thought, especially English ethical thought,
during the last century would have to lay stress upon one
characteristic feature. It was limited in range,--limited, one may
say, by its regard for the importance of the facts with which it
had to deal. The thought of the period was certainly not without
controversy; it was indeed controversial almost to a fault. But
the controversies of the time centred almost exclusively round two
questions: the question of the origin of moral ideas, and the question
of the criterion of moral value. These questions were of course
traditional in the schools of philosophy; and for more than a century
English moralists were mainly occupied with inherited topics of
debate. They gave precision to the questions under discussion; and
their controversies defined the traditional opposition of ethical
opinion, and separated moralists into two hostile schools known as
Utilitarian and Intuitionist.

As regards the former question--that of the origin of moral ideas--the
Utilitarian School held that they could be traced to experience; and
by 'experience' they meant in the last resort sense-perceptions
and the feelings of pleasure and of pain which accompany or follow
sense-perception. All the facts of our moral consciousness,
therefore,--the knowledge of right and wrong, the judgments of
conscience, the recognition of duty and responsibility, the feelings
of reverence, remorse, and moral indignation,--all these could be
traced, they thought, to an origin in experience, to an origin which
in the last resort was sensuous, that is, due to the perceptions of
the senses and the feelings of pleasure and pain which accompany or
follow them.

With regard to the criterion or standard of morality,--the second
question to which I have to call attention,--they held that the
distinction between right and wrong depended upon the consequences of
an action in the way of pleasure and pain. That action was right which
on the whole and in the long run would bring pleasure or happiness to
those whom it affected: that action was wrong which on the whole and
in the long run would bring pain rather than pleasure to those whom it
affected.

From their view as to the origin of moral ideas, the school might more
properly be called the Empirical School. It is from their views on the
question of the standard of value, or the criterion of morality, that
it claimed, and that it received, the name Utilitarian[1]. On both
these points the Utilitarian School was opposed by an energetic but
less compact body of writers, known as Intuitionists.

[Footnote 1: It seems to have been through J.S. Mill's influence
that the term obtained currency. It was used by him as the name of a
"little society to be composed of young men agreeing in fundamental
principles" which he formed in the winter of 1822-23. He "did not
invent the word, but found in one of Galt's novels, the 'Annals of the
Parish.'" "With a boy's fondness for a name and a banner I seized
on the word, and for some years called myself and others by it as
a sectarian appellation" ('Autobiography,' pp. 79, 80; cf.
'Utilitarianism,' p. 9 n.) A couple of sentences from Galt may be
quoted: "As there was at the time a bruit and a sound about universal
benevolence, philanthropy, utility, and all the other disguises with
which an infidel philosophy appropriated to itself the charity,
brotherly love, and well-doing inculcated by our holy religion, I set
myself to task upon these heads.... With well-doing, however, I went
more roundly to work. I told my people that I thought they had more
sense than to secede from Christianity to become Utilitarians, for
that it would be a confession of ignorance of the faith they deserted,
seeing that it was the main duty inculcated by our religion to do all
in morals and manners to which the new-fangled doctrine of utility
pretended." Mill is wrong in supposing that his use of the term "was
the first time that any one had taken the title of Utilitarian"; and
Galt, who represents his annalist as writing of the year 1794,
is historically justified. Writing in 1781 Bentham uses the word
'utilitarian,' and again in 1802 he definitely asserts that it is the
only name of his creed ('Works,' x. 92, 392). M. HalÚvy ('L'Úvolution
de la doctrine utilitaire,' p. 300) draws attention to the presence of
the word in Jane Austen's 'Sense and Sensibility,' published in 1811.]

The Intuitionists maintained--to put the matter briefly--that the
moral consciousness of man could not be entirely accounted for by
experiences of the kind laid stress on by the Utilitarians. They
maintained that moral ideas were in their origin spiritual, although
they might be called into definite consciousness by the experience of
the facts to which they could be applied. Experience might call them
forth into the light of day; but it was held that they belonged, in
nature and origin, to the constitution of man's mind. On this ground,
therefore, the school was properly called Intuitional: they held that
moral ideas were received by direct vision or intuition, as it were,
not by a process of induction from particular facts.

And, in the second place, with regard to the criterion of morality,
that also (they held) was not dependent on the consequences in the
way of happiness and misery which the Utilitarians emphasised. On the
contrary, moral ideas themselves had an independent validity; they had
a worth and authority for conduct which could not be accounted for by
any consequences in which action resulted: belonging as they did to
the essence of the human spirit, they also had authority over the
conduct of man's life.

Now the ethical controversies of last century were almost entirely
about these two points and between these two opposed schools. No doubt
the two questions thus discussed did go very near to the root of the
whole matter. They pointed to the consideration of the question of
man's place in the universe and his spiritual nature as determining
the part which it was his to play in the world. They suggested, if
they did not always raise, the question whether man is entirely a
product of nature or whether he has a spiritual essence to which
nature may be subdued. But the larger issues suggested were not
followed out. Common consent seemed to limit the discussion to the two
questions described; and this limitation of the controversy tended to
a precision and clearness in method, which is often wanting in the
ethical thought of the present day, disturbed as it is by new and more
far-reaching problems.

This limitation of scope, which I venture to select as the leading
characteristic of last century's ethical enquiries, may be further
seen in the large amount of agreement between the two schools
regarding the content of morality. The Utilitarians no more than
the Intuitionists were opponents of the traditional--as we may call
it--the Christian morality of modern civilisation. They both adopted
and defended the well-recognised virtues of truth and justice, of
temperance and benevolence, which have been accepted by the common
tradition of ages as the expression of man's moral consciousness. The
Intuitionists no doubt were sometimes regarded--they may indeed have
sometimes regarded themselves--as in a peculiar way the guardians of
the traditional morality, and as interested more than their opponents
in defending a view in harmony with man's spiritual essence and
inheritance. But we do not find any attack upon the main content
of morality by the Utilitarian writers. On the contrary, they were
interested in vindicating their own full acceptance of the traditional
morality. This is, in particular, the case with John Stuart Mill, the
high-minded representative of the Utilitarian philosophy in the middle
of last century. "In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth," he says,
"we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as one
would be done by, and to love one's neighbour as oneself, constitute
the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality."[1]

[Footnote 1: Utilitarianism, 9th ed., pp. 24, 25.]

No doubt Mill was a practical reformer as well as a philosophical
thinker, and he wished on certain special points to revise the
accepted code. He says that "the received code of ethics is by no
means of divine right, that mankind has still much to learn as to the
effects of actions on the general happiness."[1] He would even take
this point--the modifiability of the ordinary moral code--as a sort
of test question distinguishing his own system from that of the
intuitional moralists; and in one place he says that "the contest
between the morality which appeals to an external standard, and
that which grounds itself on internal conviction, is the contest
of progressive morality against stationary--of reason and argument
against the deification of mere opinion and habit.



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