Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter III


§1. Wisdom was always placed by the Greek philosophers first in the list of virtues, and regarded as in a manner comprehending all the others: in fact in the post-Aristotelian schools the notion of the Sage or ideally Wise man (sophos) was regularly employed to exhibit in a concrete form the rules of life laid down by each system. In common Greek usage, however, the term just mentioned would signify excellence in purely speculative science, no less than practical wisdom: and the English term Wisdom has, to some extent, the same ambiguity. It is, however, chiefly used in reference to practice: and even when applied to the region of pure speculation suggests especially such intellectual gifts and habits as lead to sound practical conclusions: namely, comprehensiveness of view, the habit of attending impartially to a number of diverse considerations difficult to estimate exactly, and good judgment as to the relative importance of each. At any rate, it is only Practical Wisdom which we commonly class among Virtues, as distinguished from purely intellectual excellences. How then shall we define Practical Wisdom? The most obvious part of its meaning is a tendency to discern, in the conduct of life generally, the best means to the attainment of any ends that the natural play of human motives may lead us to seek -. as contrasted with technical skill, or the faculty of selecting the best means to given ends in a certain limited and special department of human action. Such skill in the special arts is partly communicable by means of definite rules, and partly a matter of tact or instinct, depending somewhat on natural gifts and predispositions, but to a great extent acquired by exercise and imitation; and similarly practical Wisdom, if understood to be Skill in the Art of Life, would involve a certain amount of scientific knowledge, the portions of different sciences bearing directly on human action, together with empirical rules relating to the same subject-matter; and also the tact or trained instinct just mentioned, which would even be more prominent here, on account of the extreme complexity of the subject-matter. But it does not appear from this analysis why this skill should be regarded as a virtue: and reflection will show that we do not ordinarily mean by wisdom merely the faculty of finding the best means to any ends: for we should not call the most accomplished swindler wise; whereas we should not hesitate to attribute to him cleverness, ingenuity, and other purely intellectual excellences. So again we apply the term ``worldly-wise'' to a man who skilfully chooses the best means to the end of ambition; but we should not call such a man `wise' without qualification. Wisdom, in short, appears to me to imply right judgment in respect of ends as well as means.

Here, however, a subtle question arises. For the assumption on which this treatise proceeds is that there are several ultimate ends of action, which all claim to be rational ends, such as every man ought to adopt. Hence, if Wisdom implies right judgment as to ends, it is clear that a person who regards some one end as the sole right or rational ultimate end will not consider a man wise who adopts any other ultimate end. Can we say then that in the common use of the word Wisdom any one ultimate end is distinctly implied to the exclusion of others? It may be suggested, perhaps, that in the moral view of Common Sense which we are now trying to make clear, since Wisdom itself is prescribed or commended as a quality of conduct intuitively discerned to be right or good, the ultimate end which the wise man prefers must be just this attainment of rightness or goodness in conduct generally; rather than pleasure for himself or others, or any other ulterior end. I think, however, that in the case of this notion it is impossible to carry out that analysis of ordinary practical reasoning into several distinct methods, each admitting and needing separate development, upon which the plan of this treatise is founded. For, as we saw, it is characteristic of Common Sense to assume coincidence or harmony among these different competing methods. And hence, while as regards most particular virtues and duties, the exercise of moral judgment in ordinary men is prima facie independent of hedonistic calculations, and occasionally in apparent conflict with their results,---so that the reconciliation of the different procedures presents itself as a problem to be solved---in the comprehensive notion of Wisdom the antagonism is latent. Common Sense seems to mean by a Wise man, a man who attains at once all the different rational ends; who by conduct in perfect conformity with the true moral code attains the greatest happiness possible both for himself and for mankind (or that portion of mankind to which his efforts are necessarily restricted). But if we find this harmony unattainable,---if, for example, Rational Egoism seems to lead to conduct opposed to the true interests of mankind in general, and we ask whether we are to call Wise the man who seeks, or him who sacrifices, his private interests,---Common Sense gives no clear reply.

[ME, Virtue and Duty, §3]
[ME, Wisdom and Self-control, §2]