Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter X


§1. Besides the Virtue of Purity, which we found it convenient to discuss in the last chapter, there remain one or two prominent excellences of character which do not seem to be commonly admired and inculcated with any distinct reference either to private or to general happiness; and which, though in most cases obviously conducive to one or other of these ends, sometimes seem to influence conduct in a direction at variance with them.

For example, Courage is a quality which excites general admiration, whether it is shown in self-defence, or in aiding others, or even when we do not see any benefit resulting from the particular exhibition of it. Again, in Christian societies, Humility (if believed sincere) often obtains unqualified praise, in spite of the loss that may evidently result from a man's underrating his own abilities. It will be well, therefore, to examine how far in either case we can elicit a clear and independent maxim defining the conduct commended under each of these notions.

To begin with Courage. We generally denote by this term a disposition to face danger of any kind without shrinking. We sometimes also call those who bear pain unflinchingly courageous: but this quality of character we more commonly distinguish as Fortitude. Now it seems plain that if we seek for a definition of strict duty, as commonly recognised, under the head either of Courage or of Fortitude, we can find none that does not involve a reference to other maxims and ends. For no one would say that it is our duty to face danger or to bear avoidable pain generally, but only if it meets us in the course of duty. And even this needs further qualification: for as regards such duties as those (e.g.) of general Benevolence, it would be commonly allowed that the agent's pain and danger are to be taken into account in practically determining their extent:---it would be held that we are not bound to endure any pain except for the prevention of manifestly greater pain to another, or the attainment of a more important amount of positive good: nor to run any risk, unless the chance of additional benefit to be gained for another outweighs the cost and chance of loss to ourselves if we fail. Indeed it is doubtful whether the common estimate of the duty of Benevolence could be said to amount quite to this.[2]

When, however, we consider Courage as an Excellence rather than a duty, it seems to hold a more independent position in our moral estimation. And this view corresponds more completely than the other to the common application of the notion; as there are many acts of courage, which are not altogether within the control of the Will, and therefore cannot be regarded as strict duties. For (1) danger is frequently sudden and needs to be met without deliberation, so that our manner of meeting it can only be semi-voluntary. And (2) though naturally timid persons can perhaps with effort control fear as they can anger or appetite, if time be allowed for deliberation, and can prevent it from taking effect in dereliction of duty: still this result is not all that is required for the performance of such courageous acts as need more than ordinary energy---for the energy of the timid virtuous man is liable to be exhausted in the effort to control his fear: e.g. in battle he can perhaps stand still to be killed as well as the courageous man but not charge with the same impetuosity or strike with the same vigour and precision. [3]

So far then as Courage is not completely voluntary, we have to consider whether it is a desirable quality rather than whether we are strictly bound to exhibit it. And here there seems no doubt that we commonly find it morally admirable without reference to any end served by it, and when the dangers which call it forth might be avoided without any dereliction of duty. At the same time we call a man foolhardy who runs unnecessarily into danger beyond a certain degree. Where then is the limit to be fixed? On utilitarian principles we should endeavour to strike as exact a balance as possible between the amount of danger incurred in any case and the probable benefit of cultivating and developing by practice a habit so frequently necessary for the due performance of important duties. This will obviously give a different result for different states of society and different callings and professions; as most people need this instinctive courage less in civilised societies than in semi-barbarous ones, and civilians less than soldiers. Perhaps the instinctive admiration of mankind for acts of daring does not altogether observe this limit: but we may say, I think, that in so far as it attempts to justify itself on reflection, it is commonly in some such way as this; and Common Sense does not seem to point to any limit depending on a different principle.

[ME, Self-regarding Virtues, §3]
[ME, Courage, Humility, etc., §2]