THE THEORY OF ETHICS.
PRELIMINARY VIEW OF ETHICAL, QUESTIONS.
As a preface to the account of the Ethical Systems, and a principle of arrangement, for the better comparing of them, we shall review in order the questions that arise in the discussion.
I. First of all is the question as to the ETHICAL STANDARD. What, in the last resort, is the test, criterion, umpire, appeal, or Standard, in determining Right and Wrong? In the concrete language of Paley, “Why am I obliged to keep my word? The answer to this is the Theory of Right and Wrong, the essential part of every Ethical System.”
We may quote the leading answers, as both explaining and summarizing the chief question of Ethics, and more especially of Modern Ethics.
1. It is alleged that the arbitrary Will of the Deity, as expressed in the Bible, is the ultimate standard. On this view anything thus commanded is right, whatever be its consequences, or however it may clash with our sentiments and reasonings.
2. It was maintained by Hobbes, that the Sovereign, acting under his responsibility to God, is the sole arbiter of Right and Wrong. As regards Obligatory Morality, this seems at first sight an identical proposition; morality is another name for law and sovereignty. In the view of Hobbes, however, the sovereign should be a single person, of absolute authority, humanly irresponsible, and irremoveable; a type of sovereignty repudiated by civilized nations.
3. It has been held, in various phraseology, that a certain fitness, suitability, or propriety in actions, as determined by our Understanding or Reason, is the ultimate test. “When a man keeps his word, there is a certain congruity or consistency between the action and the occasion, between the making of a promise and its fulfilment; and wherever such congruity is discernible, the action is right.” This is the view of Cudworth, Clarke, and Price. It may be called the Intellectual or Rational theory.
A special and more abstract form of the same theory is presented in the dictum of Kant—’act in such a way that your conduct might be a law to all beings.’
4. It is contended, that the human mind possesses an intuition or instinct, whereby we feel or discern at once the right from the wrong; a view termed the doctrine of the Moral Sense, or Moral Sentiment. Besides being supported by numerous theorizers in Ethics, this is the prevailing and popular doctrine; it underlies most of the language of moral suasion. The difficulties attending the stricter interpretation of it have led to various modes of qualifying and explaining it, as will afterwards appear. Shaftesbury and Hutcheson are more especially identified with the enunciation of this doctrine in its modern aspect.