Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter III


§2. Let us now return to the question whether Wisdom, as exhibited in right judgment as to ends, is in any degree attainable at will, and so, according to our definition, a Virtue. At first sight, the perception of the right end may seem not to be voluntary any more than the cognition of any other kind of truth ; and though in most cases the attainment of truth requires voluntary effort, still we do not generally think it possible for any man, by this alone, to attain even approximately the right solution of a difficult intellectual problem. It is often said, however, that the cognition of Moral truth depends largely upon the 'heart', that is, upon a certain condition of our desires and other emotions: and it would seem to be on this view that Wisdom is regarded as a Virtue; and we may admit it as such, according to the definition before given, so far as this condition of feeling is attainable at will. Still, on closer scrutiny, there hardly seems to be agreement as to the right emotional conditions of the cognition of ends: as some would say that prayer or ardent aspiration produced the most state, while others would urge that emotional excitement is likely to perturb the judgment, and would say that we need for right apprehension rather tranquillity of feeling: and some would contend that a complete suppression of selfish impulses was the essential condition, while others would regard this as chimerical and impossible, or, if possible, a plain misdirection of effort. On these points we cannot decide in the name of Common Sense : but it would be generally agreed that there are certain violent passions and sensual appetites which are known to be liable to pervert moral apprehensions, and that these are to some extent under the control of the Will; so that a man who exercises moral effort" to resist their influence, when he wishes to decide on ends of action, may be said to be so far voluntarily wise.

And this applies to some extent even to that other function of Wisdom, first discussed, which consists in the selection of the best means to the attainment of given ends. For experience seems to show that our insight in practical matters is liable to be perverted by desire and fear, and that this perversion may be prevented by an effort of self-control: so that unwisdom, even here, is at least not altogether involuntary. Thus in a dispute which may lead to a quarrel, I may be entirely unable to show foresight and skill in maintaining my right in such a manner as to avoid needless exasperation, and so far may be unable to conduct the dispute wisely: but it is always in my power, before taking each important step, to reduce the influence of anger or wounded amour propre on my decisions, and I may avoid much unwisdom in this way. And it is to be observed that volition has a more important part to play in developing or protecting our insight into the right conduct of life, than it has in respect of the technical skill to which we compared Practical Wisdom; in proportion as the reasonings in which Practical Wisdom is exhibited are less clear and exact, and the conclusions inevitably more uncertain. For desire and fear could hardly make one go wrong in an arithmetical calculation; but in estimating a balance of complicated practical probabilities it is more difficult to resist the influence of strong inclination: and it would seem to be a more or less definite consciousness of the continual need of such resistance, which leads us to regard Wisdom as a Virtue.

We may say then that Practical Wisdom, so far as it is a virtue, involves a habit of resistance to desires and fears which is commonly distinguished as Self-control. But suppose a man has determined with full insight the course of conduct that it is reasonable for him to adopt under any given circumstances, the question still remains whether he will certainly adopt it. Now I hardly think that Common Sense considers the choice, as distinct from the cognition, of right ends to belong to Wisdom; and yet we should scarcely call a man wise who deliberately chose to do what he knew to be contrary to reason. The truth seems to be that the notion of such a choice, though the modern mind admits it as possible, is somewhat unfamiliar in comparison with either (1) impulsive irrationality, or (2) mistaken choice of bad for good. In the last case, if the mistake is entirely involuntary, the choice has, of course, no subjective wrongness: often, however, the mistaken conclusion is caused by a perverting influence of desire or fear of which the agent is obscurely conscious, and which might be resisted and dispelled by an effort of will. As so caused, the mistake falls under the head of culpable unwisdom, due to want of self-control similar in kind---though not in degree---to that which is exhibited in the rarer phenomenon of a man deliberately choosing to do what he knows to be bad for him.

The case of impulsive wrongdoing is somewhat different. It is clear that a resolution made after deliberation, in accordance with our view of what is right, should not be abandoned or modified except deliberately---at least if time for fresh deliberation be allowed---: and the self-control required to resist impulses prompting to such abandonment or modification which we may perhaps call Firmness,---is an indispensable auxiliary to Wisdom. But the gusts of impulse that the varying occasions of life arouse sometimes take effect so rapidly that the resolution to which they run counter is not actually recalled at the time: and in this case the self-control or firmness required to prevent unreasonable action seems to be not attainable at will, when it is most wanted. We can, however, cultivate this important habit by graving our resolves deeper in the moments of deliberation that continually intervene among the moments of impulsive action.

[ME, Wisdom and Self-control, §1]
[ME, Wisdom and Self-control, §3]