Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter II


§1. Before, however, we attempt to define particular virtues or departments of duty, it will be well to examine further the notions of Duty and Virtue in general, and the relations between the two, as we find them implicitly conceived by the common sense of mankind, which we are endeavouring to express. Hitherto I have taken Duty to be broadly convertible with Right conduct: I have noticed, however, that the former term---like ``ought'' and ``moral obligation''---implies at least the potential presence of motives prompting to wrong conduct; and is therefore not applicable to beings to whom no such conflict of motives can be attributed. Thus God is not conceived as performing duties, though He is conceived as realising Justice and other kinds of Rightness in action. For a similar reason, we do not commonly apply the term `duty' to right actions---however necessary and important---when we are so strongly impelled to them by non-moral inclinations that no moral impulse is conceived to be necessary for their performance. Thus we do not say generally that it is a duty to eat and drink enough: though we do often say this to invalids who have lost their appetite. We should therefore perhaps keep most close to usage if we defined Duties as `those Right actions or abstinences, for the adequate accomplishment of which a moral impulse is conceived to be at least occasionally necessary'. But as this line of distinction is vague, and continually varying, I shall not think it necessary to draw attention to it in the detailed discussion of duties: it seems sufficient to point out that we shall be chiefly concerned with such right conduct as comes within the definition just suggested.

It may be said, however, that there is another implication in the term ``duty'' which I have so far overlooked, but which its derivation-and that of the equivalent term `obligation' plainly indicates: viz. that it is ``due'' or owed to some one. But I think that here the derivation does not govern the established usage: rather, it is commonly recognised that duties owed to persons, or ``relative'' duties, are only one species, and that some duties---as (e.g.) Truth-speaking---have no such relativity. No doubt it is possible to view any duty as relative to the person or persons immediately affected by its performance; but it is not usual to do this where the immediate effects are harmful---as where truth-speaking causes a physically injurious shock to the person addressed---: and though it may still be conceived to be ultimately good for society, and so ``due'' to the community or to humanity at large, that truth should even in this case be spoken, this conception hardly belongs to the intuitional view that `truth should be spoken regardless of consequences'. Again, it may be thought by religious persons that the performance of duties is owed not to the human or other living beings affected by them, but to God as the author of the moral law. And I certainly would not deny that our common conception of duty involves an implied relation of an individual will to a universal will conceived as perfectly rational: but I am not prepared to affirm that this implication is necessary, and an adequate discussion of the difficulties involved in it would lead to metaphysical controversies which I am desirous of avoiding. I propose, therefore, in this exposition of the Intuitional method, to abstract from this relation of Duty generally to a Divine Will: and, for reasons partly similar, to leave out of consideration the particular ``duties to God'' which Intuitionists have often distinguished and classified. Our view of the general rules of ``duty to man'' (or to other animals)---so far as such rules are held to be cognisable by moral intuition---will, I conceive, remain the same, whether or not we regard such rules as imposed by a Supreme Rational Will: since in any case they will be such as we hold it rational for all men to obey, and therefore such as a Supreme Reason would impose. I shall not therefore treat the term ``Duty'' as implying necessarily a relation either to a universal Imponent or to the individuals primarily affected by the performance of duties: but shall use it as equivalent generally to Right conduct, while practically concentrating attention on acts and abstinences for which a moral impulse is thought to be more or less required.

The notion of Virtue presents more complexity and difficulty, and requires to be discussed from different points of view. We may begin by noticing that there seem to be some particular virtues (such as Generosity) which may be realised in acts objectively---though not subjectively---wrong, from want of insight into their consequences: and even some (such as Courage) which may be exhibited in wrong acts that are known by the agent to be such. But though the contemplation of such acts excites in us a quasi-moral admiration, in the latter case we certainly should not call them virtuous, and it is doubtful whether we should do so in the former case, if we were using the term strictly. It will therefore involve no material deviation from usage, if we limit the term ``Virtue'' to qualities exhibited in right conduct: accordingly I propose to adopt this limitation in subsequent discussions.

How far, then, are we to regard the spheres of Duty and Virtue (thus defined) as co-extensive? To a great extent they undoubtedly are so, in the common application of the terms, but not altogether: since in its common use each term seems to include something excluded from the other. We should scarcely say that it was virtuous---under ordinary circumstances---to pay one's debts, or give one's children a decent education, or keep one's aged parents from starving; these being duties which most men perform, and only bad men neglect. On the other hand, there are acts of high and noble virtue which we commonly regard as going beyond the strict duty of the agent; since, while we praise their performance, we do not condemn their non-performance. Here, however, a difficulty seems to arise; for we should not deny that it is, in some sense, a man's strict duty to do whatever action he judges most excellent, so far as it is in his power.

But can we say that it is as much in a man's power to realise Virtue as it is to fulfil Duty? To some extent, no doubt, we should say this: no quality of conduct is ever called a virtue unless it is thought to be to some extent immediately attainable at will by all ordinary persons, when circumstances give opportunity for its manifestation. In fact the line between virtues and other excellences of behaviour is commonly drawn by this characteristic of voluntariness;---an excellence which we think no effort of will could at once enable us to exhibit in any appreciable degree is called a gift, grace, or talent, but not properly a virtue. Writers like Hume, who obliterate this line, diverge manifestly from common sense. Still I regard it as manifestly paradoxical to maintain that it is in the power of any one at any time to realise virtue in the highest form or degree; (e.g.) no one would affirm that any ordinary man can at will exhibit the highest degree of courage---in the sense in which courage is a virtue---when occasion arises. It would seem, therefore, that we can distinguish a margin of virtuous conduct, which may be beyond the strict duty of any individual as being beyond his power.

Can we then, excluding this margin, say that virtuous conduct, so far as it is in a man's power, coincides completely with his duty? Certainly we should agree that a truly moral man cannot say to himself, ``This is the best thing on the whole for me to do, but yet it is not my duty to do it though it is in my power'': this would certainly seem to common sense an immoral paradox. And yet there seem to be acts and abstinences which we praise as virtuous, without imposing them as duties upon all who are able to do them; as for a rich man to live very plainly and devote his income to works of public beneficence.

Perhaps we may harmonise these inconsistent views by distinguishing between the questions `what a man ought to do or forbear' and `what other men ought to blame him for not doing or forbearing': and recognising that the standard normally applied in dealing with the latter question is laxer than would be right in dealing with the former. But how is this double standard to be explained? We may partly explain it by the different degrees of our knowledge in the two cases: there are many acts and forbearances of which we cannot lay down definitely that they ought to be done or forborne, unless we have the complete knowledge of circumstances which a man commonly possesses only in his own case, and not in that of other men. Thus I may easily assure myself that I ought to subscribe to a given hospital: but I cannot judge whether my neighbour ought to subscribe, as I do not know the details of his income and the claims which he is bound to satisfy. I do not, however, think that this explanation is always applicable: I think that there are not a few cases in which we. refrain from blaming others for the omission of acts which we do not doubt that we in their place should have thought it our duty to perform. In such cases the line seems drawn by a more or less conscious consideration of what men ordinarily do, and by a social instinct as to the practical effects of expressed moral approbation and disapprobation: we think that moral progress will on the whole be best promoted by our praising acts that are above the level of ordinary practice, and confining our censure---at least if precise and particular---to acts that fall clearly below this standard. But a standard so determined must be inevitably vague, and tending to vary as the average level of morality varies in any community, or section of a community: indeed it is the aim of preachers and teachers of morality to raise it continually. Hence it is not convenient to use it in drawing a theoretical line between Virtue and Duty: and I have therefore thought it best to employ the terms so that virtuous conduct may include the performance of duty as well as whatever good actions may be commonly thought to go beyond duty; though recognising that Virtue in its ordinary use is most conspicuously manifested in the latter.

[ME, Intuitionism, §5]
[ME, Virtue and Duty, §2]