The distinction made in the last § is further explained ; and it is insisted that all that Ethics has done or can do, is, not to determine absolute duties, but to point out which, among a few of the alternatives, possible under certain circumstances, will have the better results.
(3) Even this latter task is immensely difficult, and no adequate proof that the total results of one action are superior to those of another, has ever been given.
(a) we can only calculate actual results within a comparatively near future; we must, therefore, assume that no results of the same action in the infinite future beyond, will reverse the balance - an assumption which perhaps can be, but certainly has not been, justified.
and (b) even to decide that, of any two actions one has a better total result than the other in the immediate future, is very difficult; and it is very improbable, and quite impossible to prove, that any single action is in all cases better as means than its probable alternative.
Rules of duty, even in this restricted sense, can only, at most, be general truths.
But (c) most of the actions, most universally approved by Common Sense, may perhaps be shewn to be generally better as means than any probable alternative, on the following principles.
(1) With regard to some rules it may be shewn that their general observance would be useful in any state of society, where the instincts to preserve and propagate life and to possess property were as strong as they seem always to be;
and this utility may be shewn, independently of a right view as to what is good in itself, since the observance is a means to things which are a necessary condition for the attainment of any great goods in considerable quantities.
(2) Other rules are such that their general observance can only be shewn to be useful, as a means to the preservation of society, under more or less temporary conditions;
if any of these are to be proved useful in all societies this can only be done by shewing their causal relation to things good or evil in themselves, which are not generally recognised to be such.
It is plain that rules of class (1) may also be justified by the existence of such temporary conditions as justify those of class (2);
and among such temporary conditions must be reckoned the so-called sanctions.