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1844

Utilitarians are Almost Right

Richard Hildreth's Theory of Morals, Part Five

Hildreth rejects the utilitarian standard of value—happiness—and concludes his book by connecting benevolence and virtue.

Editor’s Note

In our fifth and final selection from Richard Hildreth’s Theory of Morals, our author throws a series of punches at utilitarianism, the most fashionable of ethical theories in his day. Hildreth expands upon his earlier argument that happiness is decidedly not a clear indicator of virtue, nor was virtue sufficient guarantee for happiness. It is certainly true that there is some connection between the two concepts in the actions of moral agents, but the relationship is not necessary. For one thing, virtue is a bundle of ideas about right and wrong, and as such the perception of virtue depends largely upon one’s education. That education is undoubtedly the product of self-interested teachers, politicians, and spiritual leaders. As such, one’s conception of virtue is often entirely unrelated to a disinterested study of human nature; it is a device planted in the mind to reinforce the power and influence of a few individuals. Our very ideas about right and wrong can be deeply flawed and indeed we may think ourselves bursting with virtue when in fact our actions continue to produce misery and limit happiness. Even individuals of genuine and cultivated virtue may not reap the just rewards of their behavior. The physical world, after all, does not comport itself to human concepts of justice and very excellent people are often forced to endure the very worst of conditions.

To properly ensure that individuals have the best ability to alleviate pains, expand happiness, and cultivate virtue in the process, Hildreth concludes that we should actively expand individuals’ sense of benevolence toward their fellow creatures. Having identified key problems with rival ethical theories, Hildreth suggests that the best practice of ethics depends upon the empirical study of which behaviors actually produce better results. The collection of these better behaviors then becomes the content of practical ethics, called virtue. The utilitarian standard of ethics—happiness—is too amorphous and problematic to be effective, but if benevolence dominates the sentiments surrounding social interactions, individuals on their search for maximum happiness and minimum pain will nearly always approach one another in good faith. Under condition of benevolence, social interactions become the testing grounds of practical or virtue ethics, in which moral agents do not spend their time crunching fictitious utils, but rather focus their attentions on producing solutions for very real and immediate problems. For Hildreth and those many libertarians virtue ethicists who have followed him, a better ethics must be a progressive science of humanity in which agents’ happiness depends upon a general feeling of good faith and good will toward all, under which each individual is free to contribute as their conscience dictated without undue imposition.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

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

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

Part Third. Connexion between Happiness and Virtue, and True Means of Promoting Both.

Chapter I. Connexion between Happiness and Virtue.

1. As respects the influence of virtue upon happiness, two questions may be asked…

First.  Does the increase of virtue in a community tend to increase the happiness of that community?

Second.  Are individuals happy in proportion as they are virtuous?

2. In order to answer these two questions, it is to be considered, that the happiness or misery of individuals, and of course the happiness or misery of communities and of the human race,—which are only collections of individuals, — is dependent upon four different sets of circumstances; 1st. The general constitution of nature, including the general constitution of human nature; 2d. The peculiar constitution of each individual, that is to say, his peculiar degree of sensibility to different pleasures and pains; 3d. The acts of the individual himself; and, 4th. The acts of others.

3. This analysis and enumeration of the causes of human happiness and misery, enable us easily to give an answer to the first of the questions above put, the question whether the increase of virtue tends to increase the sum total of human happiness.

One of the four elements, which together produce the happiness or misery of men, is, the acts of others.  Now, just in proportion as virtue exercises an influence over the conduct of men, just in that same pro portion does the happiness of others become an object to be aimed at; and just in that proportion will men he likely to contribute to the happiness of each other.  On the other hand, so far as virtue ceases to exercise an influence over the conduct of men, in that same degree is the disposition to consult the happiness of others diminished; and just in the same proportion are men likely to become causes of suffering to each other.

4. Indeed, the tendency of the increase of virtue to increase the sum total of human happiness, is so very obvious to the most cursory observation, that legislators and philosophers, in all ages, have exerted their utmost ingenuity to lure men into the paths of virtue; and to this end, and in order to enlist the selfish sentiments into the cause of humanity, they have, almost with one voice, peremptorily answered the second of the above questions also in the affirmative; and have proclaimed, far and wide, that, the increase of virtue, in each individual, tends directly to increase his individual happiness, in other words, that individuals are happy in proportion to their virtue.

5. This proposition, however, notwithstanding the numbers who have concurred in it, including many who hardly concur in any thing else, is as palpably false, as the proposition already disposed of, respecting the tendency of virtue to increase the happiness of communities, is obviously true; and the general perception of its falsity, —although few are able, through the cloud of authority in its favor, clearly to detect that falsity, and plainly to point it out, together with the singular unanimity of priests, philosophers, and rulers, in preaching it to others, while they neglect to act-upon it themselves, has led to a suspicion, very generally diffused, that moralists, and especially moralists by profession, are, after all, but a set of artful persons who seek to entrap men into a course of conduct, of which all the benefits result to others, and to, the moralists themselves, as a part of those others, —and of which all the burden falls upon the actors.  Thus, while all men praise virtue, and are very anxious to induce others to practise it, there is widely diffused, even among professed moralists themselves, a secret doubt, whether morality, after all, be not a cunning contrivance to make the many contribute to the service of the few.

6. That morality is founded upon the nature of man, and that, to a certain extent, virtuous conduct is, and always must be, a source of pleasure, and often of the most exquisite and most lasting pleasure, to those who act virtuously, has been sufficiently demonstrated in the first and second parts of this Treatise.  But that virtuous conduct will always secure happiness, and happiness in proportion to the degree of virtue, is not true.  Of the four elements of human happiness and misery above pointed out, our own actions form but one.  The most virtuous conduct in the world cannot secure us against the miseries that originate in the three other elements.  No degree of virtue can cure the toothache, or guard against it; no degree of virtue can cure that heartache which springs from the ingratitude or treachery of others.  Indeed, the more virtuous a man is, the more sensitive he becomes to that sort of suffering…

It may happen and it has happened, and it will happen again, that the virtuous man having sacrificed wealth, reputation, friends, health, all the comforts and pleasures of life, the pleasures of virtue alone excepted, to a strong desire to confer benefits upon his fellow-men, finds, at last, in a lonely and melancholy death, perhaps by his own hand, a refuge from calamities no longer endurable; while he in whom selfishness so often disguised under the name of prudence, has triumphed over every more generous emotion, creeps up by crooked paths, aided by a base prostitution of talent, to wealth, power, influence, and fame; lives to a good old age, admired and applauded as success always is, dies comforted by priests, with the hope of a blessed immortality, for such men, as they grow old, are apt to grow devout, —and passes away lamented and be praised, as a great and good man…

That it is impossible for a man over whom moral sentiment exerts a powerful influence to be happy in what he considers a wrong course of conduct is doubtless true.  But what of that?  It by no means follows, that in acting virtuously, he must of course be happy.  So far from it, such a high degree of moral sensibility often exposes him to a Scylla of moral suffering on the one hand, and a Charybdis of all other kinds of suffering on the other; and too often there is no passage between; into one or the other he must fall, or alternately into both.

7. Hence the distinction so universally made, between the Right and the Expedient.  The Right is that which will afford us the greatest amount of moral pleasure; the Expedient is that which will afford us the greatest sum total of pleasures of all kinds, moral pleasure included. Now there are very few men in whom the sentiment of benevolence is so strong, that the Expedient does not constantly appear to them to be in opposition to the Right; and for whom, in fact, the Expedient is not in opposition to the Right.

8. Never, indeed, was there a doctrine more false, more unjust, or more dangerous to morality, than the doctrine that success is the test of merit; and what is but a modification of the same idea, the doctrine that happiness is the necessary concomitant of virtue, and misery the inevitable attendant upon vice.  These are notions better fitted for the sycophant and the parasite, than for the philosopher or the moralist.  One man plants and waters, but it happens too often that another reaps.  Even-so far as mere reputation goes, and laying all other pleasures out of account, neither talent nor virtue can secure even that; while it is often snatched up and enjoyed, by knaves and by fools.  Some men are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them; while those who achieve it, achieve it often by the most discreditable means.  An enlightened posterity, in a few instances, is able to do that justice which bigoted, and undiscerning contemporaries deny; but even that late and unavailing reparation occurs but seldom, and forms the exception, not the rule.  Posterity in general, does but reecho the judgment of contemporaries.

9. That virtue in an ordinary, that is to say, in an average degree, is favorable to the happiness of individuals, is very certain; at the same time it is not less certain that virtue in an extraordinary degree is unfavorable to the happiness of individuals.  A man virtuous in an extraordinary degree, finds little sympathy and no companionship; he stands a great chance to pass with his neighbours for a fanatic or a fool; his perpetual scruples always stand in the way of his advancement, and even of his employment; not to mention those pains to which the contemplation of vice and misery expose him, or that desire to remedy this vice and misery, which he finds no means to gratify, and which constantly torment him.

10. Hence it ought to be the aim of the enlightened moralist not so much to produce individual in stances of extraordinary virtue, individual instances of self-sacrifice for the benefit of mankind, as to raise the general standard of morals, and thereby to produce a general increase of virtue, and at the same time of happiness; and that too without any sacrifice of individuals, and those the most meritorious.

It becomes, then, a most interesting inquiry, how is this great object to be accomplished?  How is a general increase of virtue to be produced?  In other words, how shall we cause the Right and the Expedient to coalesce?

Chapter II. Means of Raising the Standards of Morals.

1. We have shown that the sentiment of benevolence lies at the bottom of all moral distinctions and of all virtuous conduct.  Delicacy of moral perception, and Performance of virtuous actions, depend, primarily, upon the force of that sentiment.  Hence it follows, that in order to raise the standard of morality, and to produce a general increase of virtuous actions, it is necessary to increase the average force of the sentiment of benevolence; for a little observation will be enough to convince us, that this sentiment contributes quite as much to give efficacy to the general maxims of morals, what is called the Moral Law, as it does to the performance of particular acts obviously beneficial.

2. The infant, like the man grown, is influenced in its conduct, by those pleasures and pains only which attend upon the operation of its perceptive and conceptive faculties.  At first, these are only a very few of those pleasures and pains known as selfish pains and pleasures.  But gradually, the sphere of its observation and sensibility is enlarged; and presently it comes to take notice of the pleasures and pains of those about it, particularly and principally, in the first instance, of the pains and pleasures of its nurse, whom it soon begins to ad mire, to fear, and to love, and whose pains and pleasures very soon exercise a perceptible influence upon its conduct…

3. Three other motives combine to produce the same line of conduct; to wit; the fear of punishment, the hope of reward, and that love of praise, which is one, of the modifications of the sentiment of self-comparison.  This latter motive must be distinguished from the love of approbation, which is only a modification of the sentiment of benevolence; commendation being a mark of pleasure on the part of him who commends, and being therefore a proof that we have given pleasure.  It must be confessed, however, that the love of praise and the love of approbation become so intimately commingled and united, that it is generally impossible to tell where the one begins and the other ends…

4. As children grow older, and as the conceptive and reasoning faculties begin to develope themselves, individuals who possess the same degree of benevolence will act very differently; a difference which arises not only from the different conclusions to which they come with respect to the consequences of actions, by reason of a difference in the force of their conceptive and rational faculties, but also from the different relative force of the various other sentiments, or capabilities of pleasure and pain, upon which human action depends…

5. Whether a man forms his own moral system for himself, or whether he receives it by tradition from his nurse, his parents, his tutor, or his priest, in either case his adherence to the maxims of that system, whatever they might be, will equally depend, so long as he entertains no doubt as to their binding force, upon the ordinary influence which moral sentiment exercises over him; and of that moral sentiment, the first and fundamental ingredient is, the sentiment of benevolence. Hence the great differences to be observed among men, in their conformity to their own professed moral systems; and hence the general division of men into the two classes of good and bad, conscientious and unprincipled.

So much for the observance of moral maxims in general; the disposition to observe which is usually denominated conscientiousness.

6. As to conduct in particular cases, it is obvious that in proportion to the force of the sentiment of benevolence, will be the acuteness of moral perception in such cases, and to a great extent, also, the tendency to act in conformity to that perception.  Thus it constantly happens that men of great benevolence are able to detect at once, in specific cases, the falsity of some prevailing moral maxim; and, though they, of all men, have the greatest respect for moral maxims in general, it often happens that the impulse of humanity, in particular cases, overcomes that respect, and makes them act right, in defiance of the false morality in which they have been educated.

7. It is, therefore, evident that whether we wish to produce a greater and more general conformity to existing codes of morals; or to bring about a reformation of those codes, and to make them more conformable to truth and humanity; both objects may best and most effectually be accomplished, and can, in fact, only be accomplished, by increasing the average force of the sentiment of benevolence.  This means, therefore, is justly entitled to be esteemed at once conservative and reformative; conservative of all that is good in existing systems, reformative of all that is bad.

8. Our means of increasing the force of the sentiment of benevolence depend upon two laws of human spontaneity, of which the first relates to the power of habit over the faculties and inclinations of mankind. It is perfectly well established that, within a certain limit, the exercise of any faculty or sentiment tends to give that faculty or sentiment a greater power or predominancy…

Undoubtedly there exists a great difference in the original sensibility of different individuals to the pains and pleasures of benevolence, as well as to all other pains and pleasures; a difference which no process of education or discipline can remove or overcome.  Nevertheless the degree of force which that sentiment actually and ordinarily exercises, will depend, to a very great degree, on the extent to which it is called into operation during the flexible periods of childhood and youth.

9. The second means of increasing the force of the sentiment of benevolence, and which, indeed, is essential to the employment of the first means, depends upon…the fact, namely, that the presence of other pains ordinarily tends just in proportion to their intensity to neutralize or to counteract the force of the sentiment of benevolence.  While men are tormented with hunger, thirst, fatigue, bodily diseases, the pains of sexual desire, of inferiority, of malevolence, of envy, of fear, or by any other great pains, it is absurd to expect them to grow virtuous, or to attempt to make them so.  All these pains, when carried to a high degree, have power enough, not only to neutralize the sentiment of benevolence, but to impel to actions directly opposed to it.  It is not Pleasure, as the great majority of moralists, from superficial observations, have hastily concluded, it is Pain, which is the great enemy of virtue; and to render mankind more virtuous it is essentially necessary, in the first place, to relieve their pains, to render them more happy.  The power of pleasure to produce virtue, is at least equal to that of virtue to produce pleasure.

10. These considerations will enable us to understand how it is, that civilization is considered favorable both to happiness and to virtue; and it will also enable us to explain how Rousseau, a writer of great benevolence and sagacity, fell into the paradox in which he found so many followers, of exalting the savage above the civilized state.

The progress of civilization doubtless tends to relieve the whole community from certain pains, especially those terrible pains of famine, to which savage communities are particularly exposed, and to create a large class of persons, who, as they enjoy a superior degree of knowledge and wealth, which are the means of many pleasures, become capable, in consequence, of a superior degree of happiness, and of a superior degree of virtue.

But, though it be true that existing civilization, to a certain extent and among a certain class, is favorable to happiness, and therefore to virtue,— as is proved by the large increase of what is called the middle class, throughout Europe, and the attendant rise of the standard of morals during several centuries last past; yet it must he confessed that a very large portion of most communities have shared these benefits only to a very small extent; and that they purchase that small share, only by the most assiduous and fatiguing labor; while at the same time, they find themselves exposed to new pains of inferiority, among the acutest of all pains, and new pains of desire which, with the discovery of new means of enjoyment, and the more general diffusion ’ of knowledge, increase day by day, and prove hardly less fatal to happiness and to virtue, than the worst evils of the savage state.

It is easy, therefore, to understand how a man like Rousseau, at once observant and imaginative, keenly alive to pains of inferiority, and whom his own varied experience had made familiar with all the evils of existing social arrangements in every department of society, should have been led to cry out against that civilization, the evils of which he felt so keenly, and knew so well; and even to prefer to it the rudeness of savage life; especially when we consider that Rousseau had no accurate knowledge of what savage life is; and that the old fable of a primitive golden age of simplicity and innocence served to give it a poetic coloring.

11. The same circumstances which led Rousseau to the adoption of this opinion, give it, so soon as it was promulgated, a remarkable currency.

Shortly after Rousseau’s death, the influence of those pains felt not by him only, but by a vast multitude whose eloquent spokesman he was, joined to the rapid decay of old feudal and mystic prejudices, impelled men to act in a new direction, and gave birth to a Revolution in which all the maxims of traditional morals were, for a time, forgotten and superseded; and, though old notions, after suffering great curtailments, and after the overthrow of many of the most obnoxious of those institutions of which Rousseau and his followers complained, have again recovered the ascendency, it is, however, with difficulty that they retain it.

12. As yet we have seen only the beginning of the end.  Notwithstanding all the beneficial changes that have taken place, a vast deal remains to be done.  A revolution half finished, a revolution in progress, is often worse, for the time, than the very grievances in which it originated.  The existing social condition of Europe and her colonies, if things were to stop where they are, is, perhaps, even less favorable to happiness and to virtue, than that against which Rousseau and the philosophers of the eighteenth century so earnestly protested, and which led to that great social crisis known as the French Revolution.

As things now are, the higher, and even the middle classes, suffer almost as much as the lower.  Recollections of the past and dread of the future inspire them with constant feelings of doubt and anxiety.  Conceptive pains upon the part of the few, pains of all sorts upon the part of the many; and as a necessary consequence, Hatred upon both sides!  In the midst of so much suffering, Humanity is hard pressed; and Virtue can with difficulty hold her own…

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