Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter II


§2. So far I have been considering the term `Virtuous' as applied to conduct. But both this general term, and the names connoting particular virtues---``just'', ``liberal'', ``brave'', etc.---are applied to persons as well as to their acts: and the question may be raised which application is most appropriate or primary. Here reflection, I think, shows that these attributes are not thought by us to belong to acts considered apart from their agents: so that Virtue seems to be primarily a quality of the soul or mind, conceived as permanent in comparison with the transient acts and feelings in which it is manifested. As so conceived it is widely held to be a possession worth aiming at for its own sake; to be, in fact, a part of that Perfection of man which is by some regarded as the sole Ultimate Good. This view I shall consider in a subsequent chapter. Meanwhile it may be observed that Virtues, like other habits and dispositions, though regarded as comparatively permanent attributes of the mind, are yet attributes of which we can only form definite notions by conceiving the particular transient phenomena in which they are manifested. If then we ask in what phenomena Virtuous character is manifested, the obvious answer is that it is manifested in voluntary actions, so far as intentional; or, more briefly, in volitions. And many, perhaps most, moralists would give this as a complete answer. If they are not prepared to affirm with Kant that a good will is the only absolute and unconditional Good, they will at any rate agree with Butler that ``the object of the moral faculty is actions, comprehending under that name active or practical principles: those principles from which men would act if occasions and circumstances gave them power.'' And if it be urged that more than this is included (e.g.) in the Christian conception of the Virtue of Charity, the ``love of our neighbour'', they will explain with Kant that by this love we must not understand the emotion of affection, but merely the resolution to benefit, which alone has ``true moral worth''.

I do not, however, think that the complete exclusion of an emotional element from the conception of Virtue would be really in harmony with the common sense of mankind. I think that in our common moral judgments certain kinds of virtuous actions are held to be at any rate adorned and made better by the presence of certain emotions in the virtuous agent: though no doubt the element of volition is the more important and indispensable. Thus the Virtue of Chastity or Purity, in its highest form, seems to include more than a mere settled resolution to abstain from unlawful lust; it includes some sentiment of repugnance to impurity. Again, we recognise that benefits which spring from affection and are lovingly bestowed are more acceptable to the recipients than those conferred without affection, in the taste of which there is admittedly something harsh and dry: hence, in a certain way, the affection, if practical and steady, seems a higher excellence than the mere beneficent disposition of the will, as resulting in more excellent acts. In the case of Gratitude even the rigidity of Kant seems to relax, and to admit an element of emotion as indispensable to the virtue: and there are various other notions, such as Loyalty and Patriotism, which it is difficult---without paradox---either to exclude from a list of virtues or to introduce stripped bare of all emotional elements.

A consideration of the cases last mentioned will lead us to conclude that, in the view of Common Sense, the question (raised in the preceding chapter), whether an act is virtuous in proportion as it was done from regard for duty or virtue, must be answered in the negative: for the degree in which an act deserves praise as courageous, loyal, or patriotic does not seem to be reduced by its being shown that the predominant motive to the act was natural affection and not love of virtue as such. Indeed in some cases I think it clear that we commonly attribute virtue to conduct where regard for duty or virtue is not consciously present at all: as in the case of a heroic act of courage---let us say, in saving a fellow-creature from death under an impulse of spontaneous sympathy. So again, when we praise a man as ``genuinely humble'' we certainly do not imply that he is conscious of fulfilling a duty---still less that he is conscious of exhibiting a virtue---by being humble.

It further appears to me that in the case of many important virtues we do not commonly consider the ultimate spring of action---whether it be some emotional impulse or the rational choice of duty as duty---in attributing a particular virtue to particular persons: what we regard as indispensable is merely a settled resolve to will a certain kind of external effects. Thus we call a man veracious if his speech exhibits, in a noteworthy degree, a settled endeavour to produce in the minds of others impressions exactly correspondent to the facts, whatever his motive may be for so doing: whether he is moved, solely or mainly, by a regard for virtue, or a sense of the degradation of falsehood, or a conviction that truth-speaking is in the long run the best policy, or a sympathetic aversion to the inconveniences which misleading statements cause to other people. I do not mean that we regard these motives as of equal moral value: but that the presence or absence of any one or other of them is not implied in our attribution of the virtue of veracity. Similarly we attribute Justice, if a man has a settled habit of weighing diverse claims and fulfilling them in the ratio of their importance; Good Faith if he has a settled habit of strictly keeping express or tacit engagements: and so forth. Even where we clearly take motives into account, in judging of the degree of virtue it is often rather the force of seductive motives resisted than the particular nature of the prevailing springs of action which we consider. Thus we certainly think virtue has been manifested in a higher degree in just or veracious conduct, when the agent had strong temptations to be unjust or unveracious; and in the same way there are certain dispositions or habits tending to good conduct which are called virtues when there are powerful seductive motives operating and not otherwise; e.g. when we attribute the virtue of temperance to a man who eats and drinks a proper amount, it is because we also attribute to him appetites prompting to excess.

At the same time I admit that Common Sense seems liable to some perplexity as to the relation of virtue to the moral effort required for resisting unvirtuous impulses. On the one hand a general assent would be given to the proposition that virtue is especially drawn out and exhibited in a successful conflict with natural inclination: and perhaps even to the more extreme statement that there is no virtue in doing what one likes. On the other hand we should surely agree with Aristotle that Virtue is imperfect so long as the agent cannot do the virtuous action without a conflict of impulses; since it is from a wrong bent of natural impulse that we find it hard to do what is best, and it seems absurd to say that the more we cure ourselves of this wrong bent, the less virtuous we grow. Perhaps we may solve the difficulty by recognising that our common idea of Virtue includes two distinct elements, the one being the most perfect ideal of moral excellence that we are able to conceive for human beings, while the other is manifested in the effort of imperfect men to attain this ideal. Thus in proportion as a man comes to like any particular kind of good conduct and to do it without moral effort, we shall not say that his conduct becomes less virtuous but rather more in conformity with a true moral ideal; while at the same time we shall recognise that in this department of his life he has less room to exhibit that other kind of virtue which is manifested in resistance to seductive impulses, and in the energetic striving of the will to get nearer to ideal perfection.

So far I have been considering the manifestation of virtue in emotions and volitions, and have not expressly adverted to the intellectual conditions of virtuous acts: though in speaking of such acts it is of course implied that the volition is accompanied with an intellectual representation of the particular effects willed. It is not, however, implied that in willing such effects we must necessarily think of them as right or good: and I do not myself think that, in the view of common sense, this is an indispensable condition of the virtuousness of an act; for it seems that some kinds of virtuous acts may be done so entirely without deliberation that no moral judgment was passed on them by the agent. This might be the case, for instance, with an act of heroic courage, prompted by an impulse of sympathy with a fellow-creature in sudden peril. But it is, I conceive, clearly necessary that such an act should not be even vaguely thought to be bad. As I have already said, it is more doubtful how far an act which is conceived by the agent to be good, but which is really bad, is ever judged by common sense to be virtuous: but if we agree to restrict the term to acts which we regard as right, it is again obvious that the realisation of virtue may not be in the power of any given person at any given time, through lack of the requisite intellectual conditions.

To sum up the results of a rather complicated discussion I consider Virtue as a quality manifested in the performance of duty (or good acts going beyond strict duty): it is indeed primarily attributed to the mind or character of the agent; but it is only known to us through its manifestations in feelings and acts. Accordingly, in endeavouring to make precise our conceptions of the particular virtues, we have to examine the states of consciousness in which they are manifested. Examining these, we find that the element of volition is primarily important, and in some cases almost of sole importance, but yet that the element of emotion cannot be altogether discarded without palpable divergence from common sense. Again, concentrating our attention on the volitional element, we find that in most cases what we regard as manifestations of virtue are the volitions to produce certain particular effects; the general determination to do right as right, duty for duty's sake, is indeed thought to be of fundamental importance as a generally necessary spring of virtuous action; but it is not thought to be an indispensable condition of the existence of virtue in any particular case. Similarly in considering the emotional element, though an ardent love of virtue or aversion to vice generally is a valuable stimulus to virtuous conduct, it is not a universally necessary condition of it: and in the case of some acts the presence of other emotions---such as kind affection---makes the acts better than if they were done from a purely moral motive. Such emotions, however, cannot be commanded at will: and this is also true of the knowledge of what ought to be done in any particular case,---which, if we restrict the term `virtuous' to right acts, is obviously required to render conduct perfectly virtuous. For these and other reasons I consider that though Virtue is distinguished by us from other excellences by the characteristic of voluntariness---it must be to some extent capable of being realised at will when occasion arises---this voluntariness attaches to it only in a certain degree; and that, though a man can always do his Duty if he knows it, he cannot always realise virtue in the highest degree.

It should, however, be observed that even when it is beyond our power to realise virtue immediately at will, we recognise a duty of cultivating it and seeking to develop it: and this duty of cultivation extends to all virtuous habits or dispositions in which we are found to be deficient, so far as we can thus increase our tendency to do the corresponding acts in future; however completely such acts may on each occasion be within the control of the will. It is true that for acts of this latter kind, so far as they are perfectly deliberate, we do not seem to need any special virtuous habits; if only we have knowledge of what is right and best to be done, together with a sufficiently strong wish to do it. But, in order to fulfil our duties thoroughly, we are obliged to act during part of our lives suddenly and without deliberation: on such occasions there is no room for moral reasoning, and sometimes not even for explicit moral judgment; so that in order to act virtuously, we require such particular habits and dispositions as are denoted by the names of the special virtues: and it is a duty to foster and develop these in whatever way experience shows this to be possible.

The complicated relation of virtue to duty, as above determined, must be borne in mind throughout the discussion of the particular virtues, to which I shall proceed in the following chapters. But, as we have seen, the main part of the manifestation of virtue in conduct consists in voluntary actions, which it is within the power of any individual to do---so far as they are recognised by him as right,---and which therefore come within our definition of Duty, as above laid down; it will not therefore be necessary, during the greater part of the ensuing discussion, to distinguish between principles of virtuous conduct and principles of duty; since the definitions of the two will coincide.

[ME, Virtue and Duty, §1]
[ME, Virtue and Duty, §3]