Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter II


§3. Here, however, a remark is necessary, which to some extent qualifies what was said in the preceding chapter, where I characterised the common notions of particular virtues---justice, etc---as too vague to furnish exact determinations of the actions enjoined under them. I there assumed that rules of duty ought to admit of precise definition in a universal form: and this assumption naturally belongs to the ordinary or jural view of Ethics as concerned with a moral code: since we should agree that if obligations are imposed on any one lie ought at least to know what they are, and that a law indefinitely drawn must be a bad law. But so far as we contemplate virtue as something that goes beyond strict duty and is not always capable of being realised at will, this assumption is not so clearly appropriate: since from this point of view we naturally compare excellence of conduct with beauty in the products of the Fine Arts. Of such products we commonly say, that though rules and definite prescriptions may do much, they can never do all; that the highest excellence is always due to an instinct or tact that cannot be reduced to definite formulae. We can describe the beautiful products when they are produced, and to some extent classify their beauties, giving names to each; but we cannot prescribe any certain method for producing each kind of beauty. So, it may be said, stands the case with virtues: and hence the attempt to state an explicit maxim, by applying which we may be sure of producing virtuous acts of any kind, must fail: we can only give a general account of the virtue---a description, not a definition---and leave it to trained insight to find in any particular circumstances the act that will best realise it. On this view, which I may distinguish as Æsthetic Intuitionism, I shall have something to say hereafter.' But I conceive that our primary business is to examine the larger claims of those Rational or Jural Intuitionists, who maintain that Ethics admits of exact and scientific treatment, having for its first principles the general rules of which we have spoken, or the most fundamental of them: and who thus hold out to us a hope of getting rid of the fluctuations and discrepancies of opinion, in which we acquiesce in aesthetic discussions, but which tend to endanger seriously the authority of ethical beliefs. And we cannot, I think, decide on the validity of such claims without examining in detail the propositions which have been put forward as ethical axioms, and seeing how far they prove to be clear and explicit, or how far others may be suggested presenting these qualities. For it would not be maintained, at least by the more judicious thinkers of this school, that such axioms are always to be found with proper exactness of form by mere observation of the common moral reasonings of men; but rather that they are at least implied in these reasonings, and that when made explicit their truth is self-evident, and must be accepted at once by an intelligent and unbiassed mind. Just as some mathematical axioms are not and cannot be known to the multitude, as their certainty cannot be seen except by minds carefully prepared,---but yet, when their terms are properly understood, the perception of their absolute truth is immediate and irresistible. Similarly, if we are not able to claim for a proposed moral axiom, in its precise form, an explicit and actual assent of ``orbis terrarum'', it may still be a truth which men before vaguely apprehended, and which they will now unhesitatingly admit.

In this inquiry it is not of great importance in what order we take the virtues. We are not to examine the system of any particular moralist, but the Morality (as it was called) of Common Sense; and the discussion of the general notions of Duty and Virtue, in which we have been engaged in the present chapter, will have shown incidentally the great difficulty of eliciting from Common Sense any clear principle of classification of the particular duties and virtues. Hence I have thought it best to reserve what I have to say on the subject of classification till a later period of the discussion; and in the first place to take the matter to be investigated quite empirically, as we find it in the common thought expressed in the common language of mankind. The systems of moralists commonly attempt to give some definite arrangement to this crude material: but in so far as they are systematic they generally seem forced to transcend Common Sense, and define what it has left doubtful; as I shall hereafter try to show.

For the present, then, it seems best, in this empirical investigation, to take the virtues rather in the order of their importance; and, as there are some that seem to have a special comprehensiveness of range, and to include under them, in a manner, all or most of the others, it will be convenient to begin with these. Of these Wisdom is perhaps the most obvious: in the next chapter, therefore, I propose to examine our common conceptions of Wisdom, and certain other cognate or connected virtues or excellences.

[ME, Virtue and Duty, §2]
[ME, Wisdom and Self-Control, §1]