Chapter 1

General Remarks Icon

January 31, 2022

What is the foundation of morality?

This question has divided many people from the dawn of philosophy.

The young Socrates listened to the old Protagoras, the sophist, and asserted the theory of utilitarianism against the popular morality.

A similar confusion and uncertainty afflicts the first principles of all the sciences, even mathematics.

The truths which are ultimately accepted as the first principles of a science, are really the last results of metaphysical analysis.

All action is for the sake of some end. The rules of action must take their whole character from this end.

When we engage in a pursuit, a clear and precise conception of what we are pursuing would seem to be the first thing we need, instead of the last we are to look forward to. A test of right and wrong must be the means, one would think, of ascertaining what is right or wrong, and not a consequence of having already ascertained it.

The difficulty is not avoided by having recourse to the popular theory of a natural faculty, a sense or instinct, informing us of right and wrong. For—besides that the existence of such a moral instinct is itself one of the matters in dispute—those believers in it who have any pretensions to philosophy, have been obliged to abandon the idea that it discerns what is right or wrong in the particular case in hand, as our other senses discern the sight or sound actually present. Our moral faculty, according to all those of its interpreters who are entitled to the name of thinkers, supplies us only with the general principles of moral judgments; it is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not for perception of it in the concrete.

Both the intuitive and the inductive school of ethics insist on the necessity of general laws. They agree that the morality of an action is not a question of direct perception, but of the application of a law to an individual case.

They recognise the same moral laws. But they differ as to:

  • their evidence, and
  • the source of the morality

They think that the principles of morals are evident à priori.

  • One school thinks that morality is inherent and needs only that the meaning of the terms be understood.
  • Another school says that morality and truth & falsehood are derived from observation and experience.

But believe that there is a science of morals. Yet they are unable to create a list of the à priori principles for this science.

They merely:

  • assume the ordinary precepts of morals as the à priori authority, or
  • they use some general principles that are not so authoritative are are not accepted in the mainstream.

To come up with the proper principles of morals, we must do a complete survey and criticism of past and present ethical doctrine. This requires a standard. We can use people’s feelings as such a standard.

The most common feeling to all is the happiness coming from utility. Bentham called it, the greatest happiness principle. This idea was scorned by some people.

Nor is there any school of thought which refuses to admit that the influence of actions on happiness is a most material and even predominant consideration in many of the details of morals, however unwilling to acknowledge it as the fundamental principle of morality, and the source of moral obligation.

I might go much further, and say that to all those à priori moralists who deem it necessary to argue at all,

Utilitarian arguments are indispensable.

Kant’s Metaphysics of Ethics

He laid down an universal first principle as the origin and ground of moral obligation:

But he fails to show how actual moral duties can actually be adopted by all.

On the present occasion, I shall, without further discussion of the other theories, attempt to contribute something towards the understanding and appreciation of the Utilitarian or Happiness theory, and towards such proof as it is susceptible of. It is evident that this cannot be proof in the ordinary and popular meaning of the term.

Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shown to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof.

The art of medicine is good by its conducing to health. But how can we prove that health is good?

The art of music is good because it produces pleasure. But how can we prove that this pleasure is good?

The Formula for Morals

What rational grounds can be given for accepting or rejecting the utilitarian formula of morals?

This formula should be correctly understood first.

Its name creates a very imperfect notion which impedes its reception.

This can be simplified if the definition of utilitarianism can be cleared up, which is what the next chapters will do.