Hildreth continues his critique of mystical, egoist, and utilitarian ethics, maintaining that none established a firm and reliable standard of ethics.

Richard Hildreth's Theory of Morals, Part Two

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our second selection from Richard Hildreth’s Theory of Morals, our author expands upon his earlier attacks on ethical mysticism, egoism, and mere utilitarianism. Platonic or mystical ethicists imagine that right and wrong are the results of divine commands or forces, and men are subject to whatever laws Heaven prescribes for them. According to the mystics, man’s duty is to determine god’s law and dutifully follow it. In practice, Hildreth notes, this system amounts to the exploitation of the vast multitude by a few elevated and exalted priests. Similarly, mere or vulgar egoism or utilitarianism lead to voracious and unrepentant exploitation. Our author argues against the utilitarians that their theory fails to clearly distinguish between benefits to oneself and benefits to others and fails to connect intentions with actions. In the practical application of their ethics, however, people obviously care for much more than a mere love of self or the acquisition of individual pleasure and happiness. In other words, self‐​interest is no mere love of self.

Hildreth’s forensic or “practical” view of ethics implies that our theories of right and wrong should be constructed on an empirical edifice of observed facts about how people normally think about those concepts. By studying the wide array of human ideas on good and evil, virtue and wickedness, Hildreth believed we could establish a basis for ethics that includes the interests and agency of all moral actors without needing to consult supernatural authorities or the fleeting feeling of individual happiness.

By Richard Hildreth. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown. 1844.

Theory of Morals: An Inquiry Concerning the Law of Moral Distinctions and the Variations and Contradictions of Ethical Codes

36. As all the operations of nature have been imagined to originate in the volition of some deity, it naturally has happened that the same analogical method of reasoning has caused these natural events to be construed into marks of divine approbation, or of divine displeasure. Thus, seasonable showers, plentiful harvests, success in war, and public prosperity in general have been esteemed marks of divine favor; while droughts, famines, earthquakes, hurricanes, pestilences, defeats, and misfortunes in general, have been ascribed to the displeasure of some deity. The god, moreover, by analogy to the conduct of human princes, have been imagined not to be very discriminating in their wrath; but to visit a whole community with calamities, because their displeasure has been excited by the acts of one, or a few.

It is hence easy to discern how the worship of the gods, that is to say, the performances of certain acts thought likely to secure their favor and to avert their indignation, acquired the character of moral duties. They acquired that character not by reason of any individual benefits they were supposed to produce to him who performed them; but because they were thought an essential means of preserving the community in general against the injurious anger of the gods. Hence, just as public prosperity and calamity heave ceased to be ascribed to special divine interferences, the performance of religious acts has ceased to be ranked among moral duties.

37. There is, however, another point of view, from which this subject may be considered, and which is of the greatest importance, since it has afforded a foundation for a theory of morals of very extensive currency, and will help us to an explanation of several of the most remarkable anomalies and discrepancies in system of practical morality.

The tendency towards simplification, the analogy of human societies, particularly in the East, where the supreme power over great districts was generally lodged in a single chief; and the gradual advance of men from gross ignorance and credulity, to a certain degree of knowledge and of skepticism, led to the gradual abandonment and repudiation of the numerous deities of the old mythologies, and to the concentration of all the divine power and attributes in a single being, the sole God, the supreme Deity, who might indeed have numerous inferior, invisible agents, but who was, in fact, the prime mover and original cause of all things…

38. This idea of the nature of God led to a theory of morals which may be distinguished as the Mystical Theory; and the various systems of practical morals, founded upon that theory, may be called Mystical Systems, or systems of mystical morality; systems which, variously modified, are spread over all the world; and which have exercised, and still continue to exercise, an extensive influence…

39. The Mystical theory…when it is made the foundation of practical morals, is usually amalgamated with the Selfish theory; that is, with the theory, that virtue consists in securing our own greatest happiness. This amalgamation easily takes place; for since, according to the mystics, every thing depends upon the volition of God; and as God is supposed to act, at least to a certain extent, as men act, and, like them, to be influence by feelings of gratitude; hence, those who please God will certainly be rewarded by him in the end; and those who displease him will be punished. But as this present life does by no means exhibit any such rewards and punishments, mysticism has been led to adopt the hypothesis of a future retribution; a doctrine, as we have seen, which the semi‐​Stoics, and the semi‐​Epicureans have also found themselves obliged to adopt, as the only means of giving any plausibility to their idea of the coincidence of virtue and happiness…

41. [Mere utilitarianism] involves two fatal defects. In the first place, it does not accurately distinguish between actions useful to others, and actions useful to ourselves; a distinction upon which the whole of morality depends. In the second place, it forgets that an action, to be a subject of moral judgment, implies not only an external event, but a design to produce that event, and certain feelings or motives impelling to the formation and execution of that design…It is not enough, that an action be, in fact, useful to others; in order to make it virtuous, that utility to others must have been perceived and intended; nay, more, it must have been a leading object in the performance of the action.

42. But here we are met by a very serious objection. All the partisans of the Selfish theory of morals…unite to assure us, that the only conceivable motive to act, which a man can have, is the promotion of his own happiness…This doctrine, as to the origin of human action, lies at the bottom of the Selfish theory, in all its forms…

46. Assuming that the pursuit of happiness is the only impulse of human action; supposing that impulse to be single and uncompounded; and giving to it the name of Self‐​love, Self‐​interest, or Selfishness; it certainly follows logically enough, as the ancient Epicureans contended, and as Hobbes maintained, that Self‐​interest is the only possible motive of human action; and that to suppose actions to originate in a mere desire to promote the pleasure of others–a characteristic which we have pointed out as essential to virtuous actions–is to suppose what is incompatible with human nature.

Investigation, however, will show that this conclusion, though logically right, is scientifically false; the assumed premises upon which it is founded not corresponding with the facts of human action; and the term Self‐​love, or Selfishness, being frequently used in a double sense, which produces a sad confusion of ideas.

47. When we come to look narrowly into the springs of human action, we shall find, as Locke did, that all human actions originate in pains. Pains are the perpetual spurs which, from the cradle to the grave, urge men to act. Pleasures, of whatever kind, while actually in fruition, have not the slightest tendency to produce action…

48. By the word, happiness, as employed in the schools, has been signified an ideal state of continuous pleasure, supposed to be the end of human existence and effort, and the impulse to human action. But happiness, in this scholastic sense of the word, and as distinguished from what are called fleeting or temporary pleasures, is purely an imaginary state, which never entered into the minds of the vastly greater number of human beings, whose thoughts are almost entirely limited to the present hour, or the present day; and which could not actually be enjoyed without a total revolution in the nature and constitution of man; a revolution which would change him from an active, into a merely passive, contemplative being; a revolution inconsistent with his whole perceptive and sensitive nature–a nature in which perceptions and emotions are indissolubly commingled…

49. Happiness, in any sense in which it is practically an object of human pursuit, consists merely in the avoidance of, or escape from, present pains, whether those pains be pains commonly so called, or that great class of pains usually designated as desires; and it may be safely alleged, that no action from the most trivial up to the most important, as ever performed, of which some present pain, either a simple pain, or a pain of desire, is not the immediate motive…

62. We designate things in general as good or bad, according as they produce to us pleasures or pains. It is thus that pleasures and pains enter into, and give color, so to speak, to all our judgments. Thus we talk of a good dinner, a good pen, a good picture, a bad prospect. But we speak of things as morally good or morally bad, only as they afford us a pleasure, or inflict upon us a pain, of benevolence. Thus when we speak of an act as morally good, we intend thereby an act, the contemplation of which produces in us a pleasure of benevolence; and when we speak of men as morally bad, we intend thereby men whose conduct inflicts upon us pains of benevolence.

This double use of the epithets good and bad…frequently leads, as we have already mentioned, to great ambiguity, and confusion of ideas…

67. It is curious to observe [that] among those who have carried on the most desperate war against Hobbism, Utility, and Interest well understood, many who have contended for disinterestedness in human conduct, under influences almost purely self‐​interested; or at least excessively narrow. The systems of Hobbes, of Hume, of Helvetius, and of Bentham, taught that men might, and ought, in what they did, to have a chief reference to their own temporal wellbeing. The mystical systems of morals which, before the time of these philosophers, had been universally prevalent in the schools, declared it to be the moral duty of men to disregard their own temporal interest altogether. This doctrine, though, as usually taught, a system of pure selfishness, was nevertheless recommended by a specious appearance of disinterestedness. It had early been pressed into the service of despotism; and men had long been taught by priestly moralists, that it was their duty to submit to all sorts of oppressions and miseries; to surrender up to a select few all the good things of this life; and to labor day and night for the sole benefit of those few; because such is the will and pleasure of God; and it is man’s duty to promote God’s pleasure by obeying his will. Hence the doctrine of the divine right of popes, bishops, priests, and kings, and the other doctrine, less celebrated, but equally noxious, of the divine appointment of ranks and orders, in other words, of the divine right of aristocracies.

All the defenders of the existing unequal distribution of the good things of this world, at once took up arms against the doctrine of self‐​interest, whether in the shape of Hobbism, of Interest well understood, or of Utilitarianism; because they readily perceived that neither of these theories would allow morality to be any longer made use of, as the tool of a self‐​interested despotism. Thus we may explain the curious enigma, presented during the last century, of the most benevolent, humane, and liberal‐​minded philosophers contending for the sovereignty of self‐​interest, and that, too, from the most benevolent motives; while all the bigots, and all those most violently opposed to sacrificing any existing social arrangements to the demands of humanity, however loud, were most selfishly clamorous in their defence of the disinterestedness of virtue!…

[In sum, we may derive the following principles:]

First. Those actions beneficial to others, or supposed to be so, which are performed by the greater number of any given society, and which, therefore, argue only an ordinary degree of virtue, that is to say, an ordinary degree of the force of those sentiments by which acts beneficial to others are produced, are esteemed by that society to be DUTIES. The performance of these actions entitles to the character of ORDINARY VIRTUE; and men are considered under a MORAL OBLIGATION to perform them.

Second. Those actions esteemed beneficial to others, which are not performed by the majority of any society, and which, therefore, argue a superior force of those sentiments by which acts beneficial to others are produced, are esteemed by that society to be virtues of a high degree, MERITORIOUS ACTS; and meritorious in proportion to their rarity; entitling the performer to the character of EXTRAORDINARY VIRTUE.

Third. Those actions esteemed injurious to others, from the performance of which the majority of any society are not restrained by the force of moral obligation, that is to say, by the force of those sentiments by which acts beneficial to others are produced, are in that society esteemed PERMISSIBLE; that is, are regarded as acts the performance of which does not detract from a man’s reputation for ordinary virtue.

Fourth. Those actions esteemed injurious to others from the performance of which the majority of any society are restrained by the force of moral obligation, that is, by the force of those sentiments by which actions beneficial to others are produced, are in that society esteemed bad, VICIOUS, CRIMINAL, WICKED; and the performance of such acts subjects him who performs them to the character of a VICIOUS, WICKED MAN, deficient in the sense of moral obligation; an unprincipled man; a bad man; and bad in proportion to the rarity of the sort of acts to which he owes that reputation.

Fifth. With respect to that great class of actions which have a double result, injurious to some and beneficial to others, we have already stated upon what principles those actions are classified as right or wrong…

74. If these propositions are well founded, it will follow that Morality, instead of being an abstract thing, independent of human nature, something external to it, whether originating in the absolute nature of things, in the decrees of God, or the arts of man, grows, in fact, out of man’s very constitution, and so affords matter for a true subjective science of morals. It will also follow, that we may discard as unfounded the opinion so sedulously propagated, not only by partisans of the mystic school, but even by many forensic writers, that it is possible, indeed certain, that individuals and whole communities may and will shake off or lose all sense of moral distinctions, and cast off the restraint of moral obligation, unless public teachers of morality be employed and paid, to inculcate moral precepts. The first of these conclusions is of the greatest importance to abstract science, the second to practical politics.