Herbert Spencer Lecture (1953), Oxford University. Reprinted in Broad's Critical Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. David R. Cheney, 1971.
SELF AND OTHERS
C. D. Broad
It seems fitting that the subject of a Herbert Spencer Lecture should be one that looks slightly old-fashioned, and it is desirable that it should not in fact be quite obsolete. I have therefore decided to discuss certain ethical questions which interested Spencer and his contemporaries, such as Sidgwick; which are of perennial interest; but which have now for many years been out of the limelight. I have lumped these questions together under the head of 'Self and Others', which was as adequate a short title as I could think of.
It will be convenient to start by considering two closely connected principles, formulated by Sidgwick, which lead, as we shall see, to what I am going to call 'Ethical Neutralism'. One of them is about good and evil, and the other about obligation. I will state them in Sidgwick's own words. (1) 'The good of any individual is of no more importance, from the point of view of the universe, than the good of any other'. (2) 'It is my duty to aim at good generally, so far as I can bring it about, and not merely at any particular part of it'. Sidgwick claimed that these principles are self-evident, and compared them to mathematical axioms.
It cannot be said that, as stated, they are as clear and unambiguous as one could wish. Let us us begin with the phrase 'the good of an individual'. It seems clear that we must distinguish between being a valuable or disvaluable person, on the one hand, and having a valuable or disvaluable life-history, on the other. The value or disvalue of a person depends primarily on the nature, the relative strength, and the organization or disorganization of his cognitive, conative, and emotional dispositions. The value or disvalue of his life history depends primarily on the nature, order, and interrelations of his experiences and actions, simultaneous and successive. No doubt the two are intimately inter-connected, but they remain fundamentally different. Cases might arise where one would have to choose between making a person better at the cost of making his life-history worse, or conversely. So 'the good of an individual' must be taken to cover both the value which resides in his personality and that which resides in his life-history.
Let us next consider the phrase 'from the point of view of the universe'. Sidgwick certainly did not believe that the universe literally has a point of view. And, if he had, one might well ask why it should be proper for any of us to adopt it. I think that the meaning of the principle can be expressed without using this phrase. Suppose that A and B are two individuals. They will always be unlike in many respects. They will have started with more or less dissimilar innate dispositions; they will have had more or less dissimilar experiences, and will thus have acquired dissimilar dispositional modifications; and they will stand in dissimiliar relationships to other persons and things. In consequence of these qualitative and relational unlikenesses, the balance of good and evil in the world might be changed to a very different extent according to whether an experience of the same perfectly determinate kind were now to be produced in A and not in B, or in B and not in A. Sidgwick certainly did not wish to deny this perfectly obvious fact. I suggest that what he wanted to assert is this. Suppose that the balance of good and evil in the world would be changed to a different extent according to whether a precisely similar experience were to be produced in A and not in B or in B and not in A. Then this difference in value could not be due to the mere numerical otherness of A and B. It must always depend on some specific unlikeness in their qualities or dispositions or in their past history or present relationships. This is the only interpretation which I can suggest which makes the principle intelligible and obviously true. And, on that interpretation, it seems to me completely trivial.
Let us now consider the second principle. This alleges that 'it is my duty to aim at good generally, so far as I can bring it about, and not merely at any particular part of it'.
We must begin by calling to mind that Sidgwick was a Utilitarian about right and wrong and an Ethical Hedonist about good and evil. It seems to me, however, that we can deal with this principle without presupposing either of these two doctrines. For, on any view, one important prima facie duty is to produce and conserve good and to avert and diminish evil. And, on any view, we must distinguish between making a person better or worse and making his life-history better or worse, and we must include both under the head of doing good to him or harm to him. For the present purpose it does not matter whether we do or do not believe that the value or disvalue of a person can be defined in terms of that of his experiences, and it does not matter whether the value or disvalue of an experience does or does not depend solely on its pleasantness or unpleasantness respectively. We can take the principle to be concerned with the way in which an agent is obliged or permitted or forbidden to distribute his beneficent activities as between the various persons whose characters or life-histories he can effect for good or for ill.
On this understanding Sidgwick's second principle can be formulated as follows. The only legitimate ground for devoting more of one's beneficent activities to one person or group of persons rather than to another, among those whose characters or life-histories one can effect, is that by so doing one will produce more good or avert more evil on the whole than by making no selection or a different selection among one's possible beneficiaries.
What it comes to is this. A person may be, and in fact generally is, justified in limiting the range of his beneficent efforts, and in distributing them unequally within that limited range. But such limitation in range, and such inequality of distribution, always need justification, and they can be justified only on the following ground. It must be able to be shown that, owing to the agent's limited powers and resources, to the limitations of his knowledge and his natural sympathies, to the natural affection which only certain persons feel for him, and so on, he can produce most good or avert most evil on the whole by confining his beneficent activities to a certain restricted part.
Now this principle is by no means trivial, for I suppose that most people would be inclined prima facie to reject it as soon as they realised its implications, even if they were inclined to accept it as self-evident when they contemplated it in abstracltion. For the common opinion certainly is that a person has a more urgent duty to benefit those who stand in certain relations to him, e.g. his children or his parents, than to benefit others who do not; and that this special urgency depends directly on those special relationships.
Whether Sidgwick's second principle be true or false, it has an important corollary, which we must now consider. Among those whose lives or personalities a man can effect for good or for ill is himself. Obviously each of us stands in a unique relation to himself, viz. that of personal identity. It is equally obvious that each of us stands to all other persons in a unique relation of an opposite kind, viz. personal diversity. Now it might be thought that either or both of these relationships impose special claims or special limitations on a person's beneficence.
The doctrine that each of us has a special obligation to benefit himself as such, may be called Ethical Egoism; and the doctrine that each of us has a special obligation to benefit others;, as such, may be called Ethical Altruism.
Now a plain consequence of Sidgwick's second principle is that both these doctrines are false, and that what may be called Ethical Neutralism is true. Suppose that, on a certain occasion, a person would increase the balance of good over evil in the world more by benefiting another, at the cost of foregoing a benefit or inflicting an injury on himself, than by any other action then open to him. Then it would be his duty to do this. Suppose that, on a certain other occasion, a person could increase that balance more by benefiting himself, at the cost of withholding a benefit from another or inflicting an injury on him, than by any other action then open to him. Then it would be his duty to do that.
I will now consider in some detail these three alternative doctrines about self and others. The first point which I will make is that neither Ethical Egoism nor Ethical Altruism can be rejected in limine as involving an internal inconsistency. Each of these doctrines might be held in milder or more extreme forms. It will suffice if I take the most extreme form of each, and show that it is internally coherent.
The extreme form of Ethical Egoism might be stated as follows. Each person is under a direct obligation to benefit himself as such. He is under no direct obligation to benefit any other person, though he will be under an indirect obligation to do this so far and only so far as that is the most efficient means available to him for benefiting himself. He is forbidden to benefit another person, if doing so will in in the long run be detrimental to himself.
Now suppose that A is an Ethical Egoist of this extreme kind. He can admit that, if a certain experience or a certain disposition of his own would be intrinsically good, a precisely similar experience or disposition of B's would caeteris paribus be also and equally good, i.e. he can admit Sidgwick's first principle. But he will assert that his duty is not to produce good experiences and good dispositions as such, without regard to the question of who will have them. A has an obligation to produce good experiences and good dispositions in A, and no direct obligation to produce them in B or in anyone else. Similarly, B has an obligation to produce good experiences and good dispositions in B, and no direct obligation to produce then in A or anyone else. A can admit this about B, and B can admit it about A. Plainly there is no internal inconsistency in this doctrine. What it is inconsistent with is Sidgwick's principle that each of us has an unqualified obligation to maximize the balance of good over evil in the lives and personalities of all whom he can affect, and to pay no regard to the question which particular individuals or classes of individuals these goods and evils will occur in, except in so far as that may affect the balance.
In a similar way it could be shown that there is no internal inconsistency in Ethical Altruism, even in its most extreme form. It would be waste of time to give the argument in detail. But it will be worth while to state in passing what would be the extreme form of Ethical Altruism. It would come to this. Each person is under a direct obligation to benefit others as such. He is under no direct obligation to benefit himself as such, though he is under an indirect obligation to do this so far and only so far as that may be the most efficient means available to him for benefiting others. He is forbidden to benefit himself, if so doing will in the long run be detrimental to others.
A useful way of putting the difference between Neutralism, on the one hand, and the two rival dloctrines, on the other, is this. Neutralism assumes that there is a certain one state of affairs viz. the maximum balance of good (over evil in the lives and personalities of the contemporary and future inhabitants of the world, at which everyone ought to aim as his ultimate end. Differences in the proximate ends of different persons are justified only in so far as the realization of the one ultimate end is best secured in practice by each person aiming, not directly at it, but at a proximate end of a more limited kind. The other two doctrines, at any rate in their extreme forms, deny that there is any one state of affairs at which everyone ought to aim as his ultimate end. There are, in fact, as many different ultimate ends as there are agents. On the egoistic theory, the ultimate end at which A should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in A's life and personality. The same holds mutatis mutandis for B, C, etc. On the altruistic theory the ultimate end at which A should aim is the maximum balance of good over evil in the lives and personalities of all others-than-A. The same holds mutatis mutandis for B, C, etc. From this point of view the main difference between Egoism and Altruism is the following. For Egoism the various ultimate ends are mutually exclusive, whilst for Altruism the ultimate ends of any two persons have a very large field in common.
Before leaving this topic I would call attention to the following point. Suppose that an act will affect a certain person B and him alone. Then there will be a characteristic dissimilarity in the act according to whether it is done by B himself or by any other person. If it is done by B, it will be a self-affecting act; if it is done by any other person, it will be an other-affecting act. Now this kind of dissimilarity between acts, though it depends merely on the numerical identity or the numerical otherness of the agent-self and the patient-self, may be ethically relevant. If the agent-self and the patient-self be the same, the act may be right; if they are different, it may be indifferent or positively wrong. And the converse may be equally true. It is misleading to compare an act which is only self-affecting with one which would be other-affecting, however alike they may be in their consequences and in all other respects. For this dissimilarity may be ethically relevant. Undoubtedly common sense thinks that it is often highly relevant. To give to oneself an innocent pleasure is generally regarded as morally indifferent. To give to another a similar pleasure may be regarded as praiseworthy or even as obligatory. When we bear these facts in mind we see that Ethical Egoism and Ethical Altruism, even in their extreme form, are not merely free from internal inconsistency. They are also completely general and symmetrical as regards all individuals. It cannot be fairly objected to either of them that it gives an irrational preference to any individual, as such, over any other.
Let us now consider the three rival principles on their merits. I will begin with Ethical Neutralism. The first thing to be said about it is this. Suppose we define the phrase 'optimific act' as follows. An act is optimific if and only if its consequences in the long run would be no worse on balance than those of any other act open to the agent at the time. Then Neutralism is the only one of the three principles which could be combined with the doctrine that the right act in any situation necessarily coincides with an act which is optimific in that situation. Now many persons have found the latter doctrine, viz. Utilitarianism, self-evident. Anyone who does so is committed to Neutralism, whether he finds the the latter self-evident on inspection or not. But such logical entailments always cut both ways. Anyone who feels doubts about Neutralism ought, to that extent, to feel doubts about Utilitarianism, even if on other grounds he were inclined to accept it.
The second comment to be made is this. The implications of Neutralism certainly do not commend themselves prima facie to common sense. It seems to be in some directions immorally selfish and in others immorally indiscriminate. It seems to ignore altogether the ethical relevance of the distinction between acts which are only self-affecting and those which are other-affecting. And among acts which are primarily other-affecting it denies any direct ethical relevance to the difference between more and less intimate relationships between an agent and his possible beneficiaries. Yet prima facie the special urgency of the claims of certain others upon one's beneficence seems to be founded directly on certain special relationships of those others to oneself. I shall return to this point at the end of the lecture; in the meanwhile I will consider Ethical Egoism and Ethical Altruism on their respective merits.
Ethical Egoism, unlike Neutralism, could take many forms. In its extreme form I think it may be rejected at once. I doubt whether anyone would seriously consider it unless, like Spinoza, he had already accepted Psychological Egoism. If a person is persuaded that it is psychologically impossible for anyone to act non-egoistically, he will have to hold that each man's duties are confined within the sphere which that psychological impossibility marks out. But, it seems to me, there is no valid reason for accepting psychological egoism. I propose, therefore, to consider a milder form of Ethical Egoism, viz. that which Bishop Butler enunciated in the following famous sentence:
'Though virtue . . . does indeed consist in affection to and pursuit of what is right and good as such, yet . . . when we sit down in a cool hour we can neither justify to ourselves this or any other pursuit till we are satisfied that it will be for our happiness or at least not contrary to it.'
Before considering this dictum critically I will make two historical remarks about it. The first is that Butler states it as a concession which he is willing to make for the sake of argument, and does not explicitly commit himself to it. The second is that Sidgwick, who was an exceptionally clear-headed and honest thinker, found both this principle and Neutralism self-evident when he contemplated each separately, and saw that they are incompatible with each other.
I find Butler's principle far from easy to interpret. The main difficulty is in the phrase 'justify to ourselves'. I think we may fairly assume that Butler held it to be psychologically possible for a person to undertake a course of action simply because he believes it to be right in the circumstances. For, otherwise, 'virtue' as defined by him would be a psychological impossibility. It is surely incredible that he should have held that. So what he must be saying would seem to be this. Although a person can undertake a certain course of action simply because he believes it to be right, and although he is acting virtuously only if he does so from that motive, his action still in some sense needs justification. It will not be justified in this sense, whatever that may be, unless it will be for the agent's happiness or at least not contrary to it.
Now does 'justification' here mean moral justification, or justification in some other sense which is not specifically moral? To justify an act morally it is surely necessary and sufficient to show that it is morally right for the agent to undertake it in the actual circumstances. I suspect that Butler must have had some kind of not specifically moral justification in mind. I suspect that he must have had the feeling that, however right an act may be, it must be condemned in a certain non-moral sense, e.g. as 'silly' or 'quixotic', unless it will confer some advantage on the agent personally or at least not be to his detriment. If so, it is difficult to see how specifically moral justification and this kind of non-moral desideratum can be weighed against each other, and why the latter should apparently be held to be in the last resort preponderant.
Let us, therefore, try to interpret 'justifiable' as meaning morally justifiable, and let us discuss the principle for ourselves on that interpretation, without regard to what Butler may have meant by it. On that view the principle would come to this. A person may believe a certain action to be right without considering whether it will make for his happiness or not. And he may undertake it simply because he believes it to be right and desires to do what is right as such. But, unless it makes for his happiness or is at least not contrary to it, it will not in fact be right.
In order to see what this comes to let us contrast it with ordinary Hedonistic Utilitarianism and with the Neutralism which is the corollary of the latter. Let us imagine a person who started as an ordinary hedonistic Utilitarian, and then came to accept this principle. What is the minimum change that he would have to make in his original position?
Even when he was an ordinary Hedonistic Utilitarian he would have had to consider inter alia the effects on his own happiness of each alternative possible course of action. But at that stage he would not attach either more or less weight to its effects on his own happiness as such than to its effects on the happiness of any other person. But, when he came to accept the Butler principle, he would have to reject as wrong, without regard to its effects on the welfare or illfare of others, every alternative which would not make for his own happiness or at any rate every alternative which would be contrary to his own happiness. It is only to the alternatives which remain after this preliminary process of elimination that he would apply the principles of ordinary Hedonistic Utilitarianism.
So far I have left unanalysed Butler's phrase 'being for one's own happiness or at least not contrary to it'. It remains to consider this. Let us suppose that the agent has open to him some alternatives which would worsen his hedonic state, some which would leave it unchanged on balance, and some which would improve it to various degrees. It seems clear that the principle would require him, under these circumstances, to reject any alternative which would worsen his hedonic state. But it is not clear that it would require him to reject in limine an alternative which would leave his hedonic state unchanged, in favour of one which would positively improve it. Nor is it clear that it would require him to reject, among those alternatives which would positively improve his hedonic state, any alternative which would improve it less than some other. What force is to be attached to the concessive phrase 'or at least not contrary to it'? Is egoistic honour satisfied by the minimal interpretation, or does it demand the maximal interpretation in the circumstances supposed?
In order to give the principle every chance I will put the minimal interpretation on it. On that interpretation it comes to this. Suppose that a person has alternatives open to him, some of which would worsen his hedonic state, some of which would leave it unchanged, and some of which would improve it to various degrees. Then, before considering the effects of these alternatiiives on the welfare or illfare of others, he must reject as wrong all alternatives which would worsen his hedonic state. But among the alternatives which are then left he need not reject as wrong those which would leave his hedonic state unchanged, in favour of those which would improve it. Among the latter he need not reject as wrong those which would improve it less than some others would do.
Now I do not find the least trace of self-evidence in the principle, even when thus minimally interpreted. Moreover, it is plainly in conflict with many of the moral judgments of common sense, for what that may be worth. It is often, e.g., held to be highly praiseworthy to choose an alternative which will positively worsen one's own hedonic state, if this is the only or the best means of securing some end which is valuable in itself, or if it is done for the sake of persons to whom the agent stands in certain special relationships. Even when we are not prepared to say that such an act of self-sacrifice is a duty, this is often not because we think it wrong, but because we think that the agent is doing something which is highly creditable to him but is more than these minimum which duty demands. But there are many cases in which we should be inclined to say that such an act is neither more nor less than a duty. This might be said, e.g., of certain acts of this kind done by a mother for her child, or by a son or daughter for an aged and infirm parent.
The principle would be more plausible if it were stated, not in termus of the agent's happiness or even of other forms of valuable experience, but in terms of improvement or injury to his personality. Let us then restate the principle as follows: Before an agermt considers the effects of the various alternatives open to him on the welfare or illfare of others, he must reject as wrong any alternative which will worsen his own personality. There are two remarks to be made about this.
In the first place, it is commonly held to be permissible or even obligatory for a person who stands in certain relations to others deliberately to sacrifice his life, if certain very valuable results can be secured for them in that way and in no other. One example is that of an officer deciding to blow up a certain bridge, where he will undoubtedly perish in the explosion but may save his country from invasion. Another is that of the captain of a sinking ship deliberately remaining on board in order that the passengers may have the best chance of being saved. Such cases might perhaps be covered by restating the principle in the following more restricted form: Among the alternatives which are compatible with his own survival an agent must reject as wrong any which will worsen his own character and personality.
The second point to note is an ambiguity in the phrase 'to improve or to worsen a man's personality'. This may be used in a specifically moral sense, or in a wider sense which may refer to other than specifically moral excellences and defects. In this wider sense one's personality is improved if one's table-manners or one's golf-handicap or one's powers of appreciating classical music are bettered. Now I do not think that anyone would find the amended principle plausible if 'worsening the agent's personality' were taken to include producing ill-effects on his non-moral powers and dispositions. We regard it as always regrettable, but often permissible and sometimes obligatory, for an agent to do an act which involves cramping his personality and foregoing many possible and desirable developments of it. Any intelligent and sensitive person who decides to devote his or her life to working among the sick or the insane inevitably does this, and we do not regard all such decisions as ipso facto morally wrong.
The case for the principle is at its strongest if it is put in the following highly restricted form: Among the alternatives open to him, which involve his own survival, an agent must reject as wrong any which will worsen his moral character. I think that common sense would feel rather uncomforable in enjoining any such act on a person as a duty. But I doubt whether it would be prepared to say that every such act is ipso facto wrong. A daughter who gives up her life to tending a peevish invalid mother, instead of marrying and having children, certainly foregoes many possibilities of moral development and is likely to develop certain moral defects. Possibly her moral character may be improved in some directions, but it seems very doubtful whether the moral gain generally outweighs the moral loss and damage. Yet common sense hesitates to say that such a course of action is wrong. It just feels uncomfortable, and turns its attention as quickly as possible to more cheerful subjects.
The upshot of the discussion is that I am unable to suggest any form of Ethical Egoism, however qualified and attenuated, which appears to be self-evident and which is not plainly at variance with the moral judgments which ordinary people would make in certain particular cases. I pass therefore to the claims of Ethical Altruism.
This, like Ethical Egoism, can take many different forms. Unlike Ethical Egoism, even the most extreme form of it would hardly be rejected off-hand as plainly immoral, at any rate in countries where there is a Christian tradition. It might be described as quixotic or impracticable, but hardly as immoral. No doubt there is a sound practical motive for this more favourable attitude. We realize that most people are far more liable to err on the egoistic than on the altruistic side, and that in a world where so many people are too egoistic it would be unwise to do or say anything to discourage altruism. We also feel that there is something morally admirable in the will and the power to sacrifice one's own well-being -- even one's own moral development -- for the good of others. We therefore hesitate to condemn publicly even those instances of altruistic behaviour which we privately regard as excessive; and we console ourselves with the thought that there is no great risk of their becoming unduly frequent.
But, when this has been said, it must be admitted that there is no trace of self-evidence in the extreme forms of Ethical Altruism, and that they conflict in particular cases with the moral judgments of common sense. It is true that we might hesitate to say that a person has a direct prima facie obligation to seek his own happiness. But we certainly condemn morally a person who acts highly imprudently, i.e. one who unreasonably discounts his own probably future: pleasures and unpleasures in comparison with those which are immediately within his reach. It seems plausible to hold that such condemnation is at least in part direct, and that it is not wholly based on one's awareness of the fact that such a person is likely to become a burden to others. And when we turn from the good and bad experiences which a person may have in the course of his life to the goodness or badness which resides in his personality, we notice the following fact. Common sense appears to hold that each of us is under a fairly strong obligation to develop his own physical and intellectual powers, to organize his character into a coherent system, and not to allow himself to rust or to run to seed. No doubt one important ground for regarding self-culture and self-development as a duty is that they are necessary conditions for being useful to others. But I do not think it is plausible to hold that this is merely an indirect obligation, wholly subordinate to the direct obligation to be useful to others.
Let us, then, ignore the extrenner forms of Ethical Altruism, and consider for a moment a principle which might be regarded as an altruistic counterpart to Butler's egoistic principle. This is Kant's famous maxim that it is always wrong to treat a person as a mere means, and a duty to treat him as an end. It is true that Kant held that this maxim should govern a person's dealings with himself as well as his dealings with others. But, if we confine our attention to the latter application of it, we might regard Kant's principle as setting a limit to the sacrifices which, a person may legitimately impose on others, just as Butler's principle sets a limit to those which he may legitimately impose on himself.
I think that the terminology of 'means' and 'end' is unfortunate here, and that the word 'end' faiils to express what Kant may have had in mind. The word 'end', when used in its ordinary sense, signifies primarily a possible state of affairs which someone desires to be realized, and towards the realization of which he can contribute by appropriate action. Now this possible state of affairs may be the future existence of an object of a certain kind, which does not at present exist, e.g. of a certain building which a person has planned and desires ito have built. In that case this proposed object itself may be called an 'end' in a derivative sense in relation to that person. I believe that these two inter-related senses are the only ones in which the word 'end' is commonly used, and the only ones in which it is correlative to the word 'means'. A 'means' is any object which a person uses as an instrument in carrying out a course of action undertaken in order to realize a possible state of affairs which is an end to him.
Now it is obvious enough that a person can be and often is treated as a means. A miner is so treated in so far as he is used for hewing coal, and a criminal is so treated when he is publicly punished in order to deter himself or others from similar criminal actions in future. But it is not at all clear that a person can be treated as an end, in the ordinary sense in which the terms 'end' and 'means' are correlatives. It is plain that a person cannot be an end in the first sense which I have mentioned. For a person is not a possible state of affairs. A person might be an end in the second sense, viz. an object whose existence someone desired to be realized and which will come into being through the deliberate action of that someone. In this sense a person might be an end to a eugenist or to an educator who had deliberately had him generated or subsequently moulded in accordance with his plans. In this sense a person may even be an end to himself, in perfectly intelligible phraseology. A man may, e.g., in early life form the desire to become a yogi, and by a long course of appropriate training and self-discipline he may eventually effect the transformation in his character and powers which he has sought. Such a person, in his later state, is an end in relation to himself as he was in his earlier states. Moreover, in such a case he has also continually used himself, in respect of certain of his powers and dispositions, as the means or instrument whereby he has eventually realized himself as an end.
When Kant talked of treating a person as a means I see no reason to doubt that he was using the word in its ordinary familiar sense. But when he talked of treating a person as an end I very much doubt whether he was using that word in any sense which is familiar and correlative to means. From the context I should judge that he meant treating a person as an entity which can significantly be said to have legal and moral rights, to be morally responsible for its actions, to deserve pleasure as a reward and pain as a punishment for certain of his actions, and so on. To treat a person as a mere instrument is certainly to ignore such facts about him. But on the other hand, to treat him as a bearer of rights and duties, merits and demerits, is not appropriately described as treating him as an end.
The minimal interpretation which we might put on Kant's principal is this. It is always wrong to treat a person as if he were a mere animal, and still more wrong to treat him as if he were a mere inanimate object. For a person is a being who not only has sensations which may be painful and desires which may be thwarted, like an animal. He has also the power of rational and of reflective cognition; ideas of right and wrong, good and evil; and all those conative and emotional peculiarities, such as a sense of duty, feelings of remorse, etc., which depend on the former properties. In considering how to treat a person it can never be right simply to ignore those features which distinguish him from a mere animal and still more from an inanimate object.
When thus interpreted the principle is no doubt true and highly important. But it does not follow that, when one has taken account of the features which distinguish a person from a brute or an inanimate thing, and has endeavoured to give due weight to them, it is never right to treat him in certain respects as if he were the one or the other. It is not clear, e.g., that it is never right to compel a person to do what he believes to be wrong, e.g., to have his children vaccinated; or to restrain him from doing what he believes to be his duty, e.g., from sacrificing his first-born to Moloch. For, although he is a person, he is not the only one; and there may be situations in which, unless you treat a certain person as if he were a dangerous animal, he will infringe the rights and liberties and consciences of many other persons.
The sentiments of common sense at the present time in Western countries on such issues are highly complex and very mixed. The following remarks will serve to illustrate this.
(1) It is generally held to be permissible for an individual or a community to take the life of a person under certain circumstances. Any individual may do this if he is attacked and has serious reason to believe that he cannot save himself or those dependent on him from death or serious injury at any less cost. When a country is at war those of its citizens who are members of its armed forces, not only may do this, but are under an obligation to do it to a member of an opposing force who refuses to surrender. A community may do it, through its authorized agent, to a citizen who has been convicted of murder and sentenced to death by due process of law; and it is the duty of the executioner to carry out the sentence. All this would have been accepted by Kant. Yet it is surely difficult to hold, without a great deal of palpable sophistication, that the attacker, the enemy soldier, and the condemned murderer are being treated as ends in any ordinarily accepted sense of that word. I think it is true that the attacker and the enemy soldier are also not being treated as mere means. The murder is being treated as a means in so far as the execution is intended to deter or to reform others.
(2) It is commonly held that there are circumstances in which it is right for A to take B's life, but it would be wrong for B to take his own life. Thus it is right and dutiful for the executioner to take the life of the condemned murderer, but wrong for the latter to anticipate him by committing suicide. (This furnishes a good example of the ethical relevance which common sense ascribes to the distinction between self-affecting and other-affecting acts.)
(3) On the other hand, common-sense holds that it may be right and praiseworthy for a person voluntarily to make sacrifices which it would be wrong for anyone else to impose on him. Thus, e.g., a medical research worker with no one dependent on him would be admired if he were to subject himself voluntarily to some process of treatment which might injure him permanently or kill him but which might lead to a valuable discovery. But it would be thought monstrously wrong to subject anyone against his will to such a process of treatment, or even, I think, to try to persuade him to subject himself to it.
(4) Common sense in contemporary Western societies holds very strongly that it is unconditionally wrong to subject an innocent person to loss or suffering in respect of a crime committed by another, even where there is good reason to believe that this would be more effective as a deterrent than any punishment that could be inflicted on the criminal himself. There is perhaps no other point at which pure Utilitarianism is in such complete and obvious conflict with common-sense morality as here. Even if a convincing case could be made out on Utilitarian grounds for the principle that only the guilty should suffer in respect of a crime -- and it is very doubtful whether this could be done -- common sense would feel that this line of argument is wholly irrelevant.
In view of such facts as I have stated above, it would be extremely hard to formulate any unconditional general principle about the limitation of the sacrifices which can be legitimately imposed on others. I suspect that any such formulation would have to contain so many qualifications that it could make no claim to embody a self-evident principle.
In considering Neutralism, Ethical Egoism, and Ethical Altruism I have in each case indicated some important points in which the doctrine seems to conflict with the morality of common sense. I will now consider briefly what seems to be the attitude of common sense towards the issue of self and others. I think that this position may be best described as Self-referential Altruism.
Common sense considers that the question whether an act is only self-affecting or is also other-affecting is often highly relevant to whether it is permissible or omissible, morally admirable or morally indifferent or morally culpable.
Its attitude is altruistic in the following respects. It considers that each of us is often under an obligation to sacrifice his own happiness, and sometimes to sacrifice the development of his own personality and even to give up his life, for the benefit of certain other persons and institutions, when it is quite uncertain whether on the whole more good will be produced or more evil averted by so doing than by acting otherwise. It tends to admire such acts, even when it regrets the necessity for them, and even when it thinks that on the whole they had better not have been done. It has no admiration, as such, for acts directed towards making one's own life happy, even when they do no harm to others. It does indeed admire acts directed to the development and improvement of the agent's own personality, whether in moral or in non-moral respects. But I think that its admiration is not very strong unless they are done against exceptionally great external obstacles (e.g. poverty or a criminal environment) or exceptionally great internal handicaps (e.g. ill-health or disablement or unusually violent passions).
On the other hand, the altruism which common sense approves is always limited in scope. It holds that each of us has specially urgent obligations to benefit certain individuals and groups which stand in certain special relations to himself, e.g. his parents, his children, his follow-countrymen, etc. And it holds that these special relationships are the ultimate and sufficient ground for these specially urgent claims on one's beneficence.
The above paragraphs express what I mean by saying that the altruism which common sense accepts is self-referential. In conclusion I wish to raise this question. Could this common-sense position be circumvented by a person who found Neutralism self-evident, or by one who found the Utilitarian principle self-evident and was thus committed to Neutralism at the next move?
Such a person would, I think, have to do the following two things:
(i) He would have to show that all those special obligations which common-sense takes to be founded directly upon special relations of others to the agent, are derivable (so far as they are valid at all) from the one fundamental obligation to maximize the balance of good over evil in the lives and personalities of all contemporary and subsequent inhabitants of the world, taken as a whole. He would try to do this by reference to the obvious facts that each of us is limited in his powers and resources, in his knowledge of the needs of others, and in the range of his natural sympathies; and that each of us is an object of interest, affection, and natural expectation only to a limited class of his fellow-men. The best that the Neutralist could hope to achieve on these lines would be to reach a system of derived obligations, which agreed roughly in scope and in relative urgency with that set of obligations which common sense (mistakenly, on his view) takes to be founded directly upon various special relationships. In so far as this result was reached, the Neutralist might claim to accept in outline the same set of obligations which common sense does; to correct common-sense morality in matters of detail; and to substitute a single coherent system of obligations, deduced from a single self-evident moral principle and a number of admitted psychological facts, for a mere heap of unrelated and separately grounded obligations. To have tried to carry this out in great detail and with much plausibility is one of the solid achievements of Sidgwick in his Methods of Ethics.
(2) To complete his case, the Neutralist would have to try to explain how common sense comes to make the fundamental mistake which, according to him, it does make. It seems to me that he might attempt this with some plausibility on the following lines. And here we make that concluding bow to the theory of evolution, without which a Herbert Spencer Lecture would surely be incomplete.
(i) Any society in which each member was prepared to make sacrifices for the benefit of the group as a whole and of certain smaller groups within it would be more likely to flourish and persist than one whose members were not prepared to make such sacrifices. Now egoistic and anti-social motives are extremely strong in everyone. Suppose, then, that there had been a society in which, no matter how, there had arisen a strong additional motive (no matter how absurd or superstitious) in support of self-sacrifice, on appropriate occasions, by a member of the group for the sake of the group as a whole or for that of certain smaller groups within it. Suppose that this motive was thereafter conveyed from one generation to another by example and by precept, and that it was supported by the sanctions of social praise and blame. Such a society would be likely to flourish, and to overcome other societies in which no such additional motive for limited self-sacrifice had arisen and been propagated. So its ways of thinking in these matters, and its sentiments of approval and disapproval concerning them, would tend to spread. They would spread directly through conquest, and indirectly by the prestige which the success of this society would give to it in the eyes of others.
(ii) Suppose, next, that there had been a society in which, no matter how, a strong additional motive for unlimited self-sacrifice had arisen and had been propagated from one generation to another. A society in which each member was as ready to sacrifice himself for other societies and their members as for his own society and its members, would be most unlikely to persist and flourish. Therefore such a society would be very likely to succumb in conflict with one of the former kind.
(iii) Now suppose a long period of conflict between societies of the various types which I have imagined. It seems likely that the societies which would still be existing and would be predominant at the latter part of such a period would be those in which there had somehow arisen in the remote past a strong pro-emotion towards self-sacrifice confined within the society, and a strong anti-emotion towards extending it beyond those limits. Now these are exactly the kinds of society which we do find existing and flourishing in historical times.
The Neutralist might therefore argue as follows. Even if Neutralism be true, and even if it be self-evident to a philosopher who contemplates it in a cool hour in his study, there are powerful historical causes which would tend to make certain forms of restricted Altruism or qualified Egoism seem to be true to most unreflective persons at all times and even to many reflective ones at most times. Therefore the fact that common-sense rejects Neutralism, and tends to accept this other type of doctrine, is not a conclusive objection to the truth, or even to the necessary truth, of Neutralism.