1. VIRTUE is a neglected topic in modem ethics. The only full-scale modern treatment of it known to me is by Nicolai Hartmann. When one compares the place accorded to virtue in modern moral philosophy with that accorded to it in traditional moral philosophy one may get the impression that virtue as a topic of philosophic discussion has become obsolete outmoded. This impression may gain additional strength from the fact that traditional discussion has—with rather few notable exceptions—followed the footsteps of Aristotle without much variation or innovation or controversy. Kant's famous dictum that formal logic had made no appreciable progress since Aristotle could be paraphrased and applied—with at least equally good justification—to the ethics of virtue.
Kant thought that the reason why there had been so little progress in logic (as he saw it) was that Aristotle had accomplished most of what there was to be done in the field. As we know now Kant was badly mistaken. It would be unwise to prophesy a renaissance for the ethics of virtue comparable to the renaissance which we have in this century witnessed in logic. But I think the time has come when the impression which the discussion of virtue in traditional moral philosophy conveys to the modern spectator should no longer be that of something accomplished or obsolete but rather that of a subject awaiting fresh developments.
The relative neglect of the discussion of virtue is certainly connected with the predominance for a long period of that which could be called the (purely) axiological and deontological aspects of moral philosophy. Good and bad and evil are value-terms. Right and wrong and duty are normative terms. But courage temperance and truthfulness we would not ordinarily call value-concepts nor normative concepts. Some people would call them psychological concepts but this too is not a very fitting name. (Cf. Ch. I sect. 4.)
The discipline known as General Theory of Value now much in fashion tries to cater among other things for those aspects of traditional moral theory which are concerned with value—the axiological aspects. Since virtue is not prominent among them the ethics of virtue has stayed aside from these developments towards greater generality. There is another discipline of recent origin which also has a wider scope than traditional ethics and within which a discussion of virtue could claim for itself a natural place. This is the discipline sometimes called Philosophical Anthropology. Yet it too as far as I know has not so far paid much attention to the topic of virtue.
2. The Latin word virtus of which ‘virtue’ is a derivation has a rather more restricted connotation than the English virtue. Its original meaning is perhaps best rendered into English by words such as ‘manlihood’ or ‘prowess’ or ‘valour’. The Greek arete again which it has become customary to translate by ‘virtue’ has a much wider connotation than the English word. Its primary and original meaning is the excellence or goodness of any thing whatsoever according to its kind or for its proper purpose. The word ‘virtue’ too is often used with this meaning. We tend however to regard this as a secondary or analogical use. We have an idea of what could be meant by the virtues of a good knife. We easily say such things as that so-and-so had all the virtues of a great general—without wishing to call him ‘virtuous’ in the common understanding of that word. Then we are using virtue in a secondary sense—as the Greeks would have used arete in a primary sense.
When however we call courage temperance generosity or justice virtues we are using the word ‘virtue’ very differently from that meaning of arete which refers to an excellence of its kind. To see this clearly is I think of some importance. Aristotle I would suggest did not see quite clearly at this point. He was misled by peculiarities of the Greek language into thinking that those features of human character which are called virtues are more closely similar than they actually are to abilities and skills in which a man can possess that which I have previously called technical goodness.
I shall not maintain however that our word ‘virtue’ when used with a primary meaning stands for one sharply bounded concept. For this it obviously does not do.
There is first to be noted a feature of our use of the word ‘virtue’ which comes near to being an ambiguity.1 There is one meaning of ‘virtue’ which admits of a plural ‘virtues’. This meaning is in question for example when we call courage a virtue. There is another meaning of ‘virtue’ which lacks the plural. This is (usually) in question when virtue is contrasted with vice or when—as is sometimes done—to do one's duty is said to be virtue. Virtue in this second sense comes near to being an axiological or a normative attribute—or a mixture of both.2 It has definitely a moral tinge. It is related to goodness and rightness and to that which in the Bible is called righteousness. With this meaning of ‘virtue’ be it observed we are not at all concerned here. One could also say that we are here not concerned with the meaning of ‘virtue’ but with the meaning of ‘a virtue’. Therefore we are here also dealing with that meaning of ‘virtuous’ which is the display or practising of virtues and not (directly) with that which is virtuous as opposed to vicious conduct or character.
Although our notion of a virtue obviously possesses a greater ‘logical homogeneity’ than the notion of an arete with the Ancients not even it can be said to be sharply bounded. Courage temperance and industry for example seem to me to be virtues in a rather different sense from say piety or obedience or justice. I am not at all certain that those features which as I view it mark the first three as virtues also hold good for the second three.
Considering both the unstable usage of the word and the unsatisfactory state of the subject the task before us could be described as one of moulding or giving shape to a concept of a virtue. We cannot claim that everything which is commonly and naturally called a virtue falls under the concept as shaped by us. But unless I am badly mistaken some of the most obvious and uncontroversial examples of virtues do fall under it. It is therefore perhaps not vain to hope that our shaping process will contribute to a better understanding at least of one important aspect of the question what a virtue is.
3. As a first step towards shaping a concept of virtue I shall say that a virtue is neither an acquired nor an innate skill in any particular activity. ‘To be courageous’ or ‘to show courage’ do not name an activity in the same sense in which ‘to breathe’ or ‘to walk’ or ‘to chop wood’ name activities. If I ask a person who is engaged in some activity ‘What are you doing?’ and he answers ‘I am courageous; this is very dangerous’ he may be speaking the truth but he is not telling me what he is doing.
The lack of an essential tie between a specific virtue and a specific activity distinguishes virtue from that which we have called technical goodness. We attribute technical goodness or excellence to a man on the ground that he is good at some activity. But there is no specific activity at which say the courageous man must be good—as the skilled chess-player must be good at playing chess and the skilful teacher must be good at teaching. There is no art of ‘couraging’ in which the brave man excels.
Nor is a virtue a goodness of the sort which we attribute to faculties (or organs) and which as we have said before is related to technical goodness. The virtues are not to be classified along with good sight or memory or ratiocination.
One difference between virtues and faculties is that virtues are acquired rather than innate. In this respect virtues resemble technical excellence. Both of the in some respect virtuous man and of the man who is skilled in an art it makes sense to ask ‘What has he learnt?’ The significance of the question is not minimized by the fact that men are by nature more or less talented for various arts and also more or less disposed towards various virtues. Sometimes a man can be truly said to be skilled or virtuous without any or much previous education and training. But this is the exception rather than the rule. Contrarywise a man of good sight has not learnt to see well and a man of good memory is not commonly said to have learnt to remember well. This must not be interpreted as meaning that the faculties of man were not to some extent capable of being improved by training.
Yet there is another regard in which virtues are more akin to faculties than to skill in activities. This similarity is their relation to the good of man.
To do that on which one is keen or which one does well is a source of active pleasure and may on that ground be a ‘positive constituent’ of a man's good. This is one reason why it is important that a man should if possible be trained in a profession which answers to his natural gifts and interests. But none of the various professions which a man may choose and the various skills in which he may be trained and may come to excel is by itself needed for the good of man.
With the faculties it is different. (Cf. Ch. III sect. 7.) Sight and hearing memory and ratiocination are part of a normal individual's equipment for a normal life. Loss of one of the faculties can be disastrous weakness of some or several of them is usually to some extent detrimental to the well-being of a man. This of course does not exclude that one can make up for the loss or weakness of some faculty. And some men are more dependent for their well-being upon one faculty than upon another. For example: some men need good eyes more than other men and some men need the use of their eyes and ears more than the use of their brains. Such individual differences depend upon differences in profession and upon other contingencies of life.
Virtues like faculties are needed in the service of the good of man. This usefulness of theirs is their meaning and purpose I would say. How virtues fulfil their natural purpose I shall try to show presently. Be it here only remarked that just as the contingencies of life can make a man more dependent upon some of his faculties than upon others in a similar manner can contingencies make the acquisition of one virtue be of the utmost importance to a man and the possession of another of relatively little value. Sometimes the factors which determine the relative utility of the various virtues have the character of contingencies in the history of society or of mankind rather than in the life of individual men. In a warlike society such as perhaps were ancient Sparta or Rome of the Republic courage is more important for the individual man than say chastity or modesty. There is then more demand so to speak for brave than for modest men. The different ratings which moralists of different ages and societies have given to the various virtues reflect sometimes at least such contingencies in the conditions under which these moralists themselves have lived. (Cf. sect. 9.)
4. It is important to distinguish between acts and activities. Acts are named after that which I have called the results of action i.e. states of affairs brought about or produced by the agent in performing the acts. Acts leave an ‘imprint’ as it were on the world; when activities cease no ‘traces’ of them need remain. Lighting a cigarette e.g. is an act; it results in a cigarette being lit. Smoking is an activity.
Acts named after the same generic state of affairs are said to form an act-category. The individual performances of acts again we have called act-individuals. The lighting of a cigarette by a certain agent on a certain occasion is an individual act of the category labelled ‘lighting a cigarette’.
As a first step towards shaping the notion of a virtue we said that to the specific virtues there do not answer specific activities. As a further step we shall now say that to the specific virtues there do not answer specific act-categories either.
Of the man of whom a certain virtue is characteristic acts of a certain kind are also characteristic. But these acts do not constitute an act-category in the sense here defined. They are named after the virtue from which they spring and not after the states in which they result. There is nothing wrong about saying that a courageous man often does courageous acts. But it is not very illuminating. It becomes misleading if it makes us think that we could define the virtues in terms of certain achievements in acting.
There are at least two reasons why the question which acts are courageous cannot be answered by pointing to results achieved in the successful performance of courageous acts. The first is that the results of all courageously performed acts need not have any ‘outward’ feature in common. Killing a tiger and jumping into cold water can both be acts of courage though ‘outwardly’ most dissimilar. No list of achievements could possibly exhaust the range of results in courageous action. The second reason why brave acts do not form an act-category is that the result of any courageous act could also have been achieved through action which was not courageous. Not even to have killed a tiger is a sure proof that a man is courageous.
What is true of courage in the said respect is also true of the other virtues. Virtuous acts cannot be characterized in terms of their results and therefore virtues not in terms of achievements. We can express this insight in many ways. We could say that the notion of a brave generous temperate etc. act is secondary to the notion of a brave generous temperate etc. man. Or that virtuous action is secondary to virtue. Or that a virtue is an ‘inner’ quality of an agent and of his acts and not an ‘outer’ feature of his conduct. But all these modes of expression are also in various ways misleading and they should therefore either not be used at all or with great caution only.
One of the things which is most commonly said about virtues particularly in modern books on ethics is that the virtues are dispositions. Here a warning is in place. It has to do with the fact that to the specific virtues do not answer specific act-categories.
What is a disposition? The term has become something of a catch-word. As catch-words generally it can mean almost anything—and therefore often means nothing.
When is a man in ordinary parlance said to have a disposition towards something? One typical case is when we are talking of matters relating to health. A man can have a disposition to catch colds for example. Or he can have a hereditary disposition for headaches. So-called allergic diseases are typically dispositional. A man is e.g. sensitive to the scent of horses—whenever he comes near a horse he begins to sneeze or to breathe heavily.
The word ‘disposition’ is also commonly used in connexion with so-called states of temper. If a man easily gets angry or upset or moved to tears or sad we may speak of him as having a certain disposition.
Dispositions both of health and of temper can be called latent traits which under specific circumstances manifest themselves in characteristic signs—such as sneezing or shedding tears. The appearance with some regularity of these signs in the appropriate circumstances decides whether there is a disposition or not. Dispositions are typically ‘inward’ things with ‘outward’ criteria. They are that which the virtues would be if there existed act-categories or specified activities answering to virtues.
I do not insist upon a common meaning of the term ‘disposition’ for all the cases in which this word is ordinarily used. But I would maintain that there is no current sense of the word ‘disposition’ in which the various virtues could be said to be dispositions. The philosopher who calls them dispositions is therefore giving to the term ‘disposition’ a novel use. This he is entitled to do. But then he must explain what this novel use is. This I have never seen done.
The nearest equivalent in matters of conduct to ‘dispositions’ in matters relating to health and temper are habits I would say. A habit may be defined as a certain acquired regularity of acting. A habit manifests itself in the doing of a characteristic act or in the performing of a characteristic activity under recurrent conditions. A habit can be to take a nap after lunch or a whisky before bed-time. Habits like virtues are greatly relevant to questions of good and evil. They differ from virtues in that to them always corresponds either a specific activity or a specific act. This is of the essence of habits and is reflected in the fact that habits are nearly always named after acts or activities which can be performed independently of the existence of the habit.
To regard virtues as habits would be to misunderstand the nature of virtues completely. One may even go as far as to saying that if virtuous conduct assumes the aspect of habitual performance this is a sign that virtue is absent. But if somebody were to say that the acquisition or learning of a virtue is partly at least a matter of habituation i.e. of getting used to something then he would probably be hinting at some important truth.
5. We have so far mainly said negative things about the virtues. Virtues are not associated with specific activities; therefore virtue is different from technical goodness and the genus of the virtues is not the genus skill. The virtues are not associated with categories of acts; therefore their genus is neither that of disposition nor that of habit. The question may be raised: Can the virtues become specified within a genus at all? If so what is the genus of the virtues?
The master philosopher in the field in which we are now moving did not think that the virtues were all of one genus. His opinion no doubt was partly influenced by the obvious logical inhomogeneity of the meaning of arete in Greek. It has also to do with his division of the virtues of man into the two groups which are usually called in English by the names moral and intellectual virtues respectively.
The intellectual virtues with Aristotle are a very mixed bunch. None of them is what we would without hesitation call a virtue. This negative trait seems to be nearly the only thing that is common to them all. Among the intellectual virtues Aristotle counts ‘art’ (in Greek techne) or ‘knowledge of how to make things’.3 Excellence in such virtue is not identical with but related to that which we have called technical goodness. Among the intellectual virtue he further counts demonstrative knowledge and intuitive grasp of first principles. Excellence in such virtue again is more like the goodness of a faculty. Yet it would not be right to think of them as intellectual endowments or gifts. For intellectual virtue according to Aristotle is acquired. It ‘owes both its birth and its growth to teaching’ he says.4
Finally Aristotle's list of intellectual virtues mentions practical wisdom (phronesis) and the related ‘minor intellectual virtues’ of deliberation understanding and judgment. Practical wisdom is knowledge of how to secure the ends of human life or ‘a reasoned and true state of capacity to act with regard to human goods’.5 It is not however knowledge of how to secure ends in general. Rather it is capacity to act with regard to that which is in our terminology beneficial or harmful i.e. good or bad for us.6 This establishes a link between practical wisdom and the moral virtues. (See below sect. 7.)
To call the second group of virtues with Aristotle ‘moral’ as has become the custom is rather misleading. The Greek word is ethikos. What it points to in the context is not so much that which we regard as the ethical or moral flavour of the virtues concerned as another trait which on Aristotle's view distinguishes them from the intellectual virtues. This trait is that they are acquired not as the intellectual virtues through teaching alone but through teaching in combination with habituation or the practising of virtue.
Aristotle thought that his second group of virtues the ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ ones fall under a genus. This genus of theirs is state or trait of character. This I think hits the nail on the head. Not skills not dispositions not habits not features of temperament but traits of character is what the virtues are.
I shall not here discuss the concept of character. It is one of the obviously most important but at the same time most strangely neglected concepts of moral philosophy. It can be said with some though hardly undue exaggeration that only two philosophers have dug deep into the nature of this concept. One is Aristotle who thought that character is acquired rather than inborn and that it is capable of becoming moulded and developed according to human design and not only mutable according to the ordinances of natural necessity. The other is Schopenhauer. To him character seemed inborn and immutable. On Schopenhauer's view there is no moulding of character according to human design. Yet on a transcendental plane man is responsible for the choice of his character—a strange opinion but not entirely unlike the views of another profound searcher of human nature Plato.
6. ‘Virtue’ i.e. moral virtue Aristotle goes on to say ‘is a state of character concerned with choice lying in a mean… this being determined by a rational principle.’7
The idea that the path of virtue is a via media aurea between two extremes I shall not discuss. It is a fine conceptual observation and has nothing to do with philistine mediocrity as has sometimes been maintained. It may however be doubted whether it has the general validity which Aristotle asserted for it. Aristotle himself seems to have had doubts about this.
The idea that virtue is concerned with choice seems to me to hint at something more essential than the idea that virtue lies in the mean. I propose to make the following use of it:
Virtues are essentially connected with action. This connexion however is with act-individuals and not with act-categories. In Aristotelian phraseology virtues have an essential and peculiar connexion with particulars. It is here that choice enters the picture. One could also put it as follows: Because of the lack of an essential tie between a virtue and an act-category the path of virtue is never laid out in advance. It is for the man of virtue to determine where it goes in the particular case. This determination can be called a choice but we must not necessarily think of it as a choice between alternatives. (Aristotle's notion of prohairesis is therefore perhaps not altogether adequate to the logical nature of the case.)
The choice connected with a virtue could also be termed a choice of right course of action. But then the question will arise: ‘right’ in which respect or ‘right’ with a view to what? To answer: right with a view to meeting the demands of virtue is no help. We must look out for a better answer.
By no means every choice-situation is one in which there is room for practising some virtue. Normally when I choose a dish from the menu virtue is not called upon to be displayed. But when I deliberate whether to have another helping of a dish of which I have already had three helpings virtue may be needed for choosing rightly.
What then is characteristic of a choice-situation in which a virtue becomes relevant? Briefly speaking: That the case should be one in which the good of some being—either the choosing agent's own good or the good of some other being or beings—is at stake i.e. is likely to become affected by the choice. To have another helping of a delicious dish is tempting but may cause indigestion. Here temperance is needed for choosing rightly. Or if I provide myself with a third helping some other person at the table may be deprived of the possibility of having a second helping. Then consideration is required.
We can now answer the question with regard to what the choice for which a virtue is needed is right. It is right we could say with a view to the good of some being involved.
To further problems connected with the distinction between the case when the good at stake is the choosing agent's own good and when it is somebody else's we shall return presently. First we must try to get a clearer view of the role of a virtue as such in a choice.
7. In the sentence which we quoted from Aristotle mentioning state of character choice and the mean as characteristics of virtue there is also mention of a ‘rational principle’ deterrnining the choice. This mention of a rational principle refers to the role of the intellectual virtue which Aristotle calls practical wisdom in the exercise or practising of any moral virtue.
We shall not here discuss Aristotle's view of the relation of knowledge to virtuous action. (Aristotle's theory of phronesis is one of the most difficult and obscure perhaps also one of the most profound chapters of his ethics.) I think we must accept the idea that in action in accordance with virtue (or perhaps rather: in the right choice behind such action) a kind of knowledge is involved. This as I see it is essentially knowledge relating to the beneficial and the harmful i.e. to that which is good or bad for a being. ‘Practical knowledge’ is not ill-suited as a name for such insight. It could also be called ‘knowledge of good and evil’.
In the sentence which we quoted there is no mention of one essential feature which is still missing from our logical picture of a virtue. (I am not suggesting that Aristotle himself did not elsewhere pay due attention to it.) It can be called an emotion or feeling or passion. This feeling ‘contends’ in the choice of the right course of action with our rational insight into good and evil. It tends to eclipse or obscure our judgment both as regards consequences and as regards wants (valuations). The role of a virtue to put it briefly is to counteract eliminate rule out the obscuring effects which emotion may have on our practical judgment i.e. judgment relating to the beneficial and harmful nature of a chosen course of action.
Action in accordance with virtue may thus be said to be the outcome of a contest between ‘reason’ and ‘passion’. If we raise the question: What has the man of virtue learnt?—and this question we have said always makes sense—the general form of the answer is: He has learnt to conquer the obscuring effects of passion upon his judgments of good and evil i.e. of the beneficial and the harmful in situations when he is acting.
In the case of every specific virtue there is some specific passion which the man of that virtue has learnt to master. In the case of courage for example the passion is fear in the face of danger. In the case of temperance it is lust for pleasure.
Consider e.g. courage. In courage the good of man is involved via the notion of danger. Danger may be defined as an impending bad or evil i.e. as something which threatens a being with harm.
If we ask what the courageous man has learnt the answer is not primarily that he has learnt to estimate and to cope with danger but that he has learnt to conquer or control or master or subdue his fear when facing danger.
What does it mean that the courageous man has learnt to conquer his fear? It does not mean that he no longer feels fear when facing danger. The brave man is not necessarily ‘fearless’ in the sense that he knows no fear. Some courageous men may even feel fear intensely.
Considering this what then does the brave man's conquest of fear amount to? Here we have to note the fact that men's conduct when facing danger is often influenced by fear. Fear can paralyse a man so that he becomes unable to do anything to meet the danger. Or it makes him run away panic-stricken. Fear may thus be a bad thing due to its influence on a man's conduct. He who has conquered fear has learnt not to let fear should he feel it do him harm. He has learnt not to let fear paralyse him not to get panic-stricken not to lose his head because of fear but to act coolly when facing danger. In short: he has learnt not to let fear obscure his judgment as to what is the right course of action for him. When he has learnt this he has learnt courage.
It should be observed that the course of action which is the virtuous man's choice in the particular case is not necessarily that which we call a virtuous act or an act of virtue. A man of courage for example may sometimes rightly choose to retreat from danger rather than to fight it. Similarly a temperate man may sometimes rightly choose to have for himself ‘another helping of pleasure’; and an industrious man may rightly choose to ‘take a day off from work’. Such choices however do not terminate in acts called after the virtues. To retreat from danger is never an act of courage to enjoy pleasure never an act of temperance and to rest never a display of industry. This is I think an observation of some importance. It shows a new sense in which a virtue is an ‘inward’ trait of character rather than an ‘outward’ feature of conduct. The right choice in a situation when a virtue is involved need not be the choice of a so-called virtuous act.
8. In this place it is pertinent to say a few words about a problem which much occupied Plato and to a lesser extent Aristotle too in their thinking about the virtues. It could be called the problem of the unity of virtue. Are not all virtues substantially the same frame or state of character—and their diversity due only to the diversity of passions which the virtuous man has to master or perhaps to typical differences in the acting-situations in which virtue is displayed?
It seems to me that there is some foundation for the statement that there is fundamentally but one virtue. What would then be a suitable name for it if we do not simply call it ‘virtue’? The question of a name it would seem is of some importance here. For if we cannot call this master virtue by another name but ‘virtue’ then to say that all virtues are but forms of one virtue is an uninteresting tautology. It would also lead to confusion with that sense of the word ‘virtue’ which is the opposite of vice and which does not admit of a plural. (See above sect. 2.)
On the view which we have taken here of the various virtues the name of the master virtue could not be ‘justice’. It is for one thing doubtful whether justice fits the conceptual pattern of a virtue which I have here been outlining and thus also doubtful whether justice on our definition is to be counted as one of the virtues at all.
But another name comes to mind: self-control. The various virtues it may be said are so many forms of self-control. For what is self-control but the feature of character which helps a man never to lose his head be it for fear of pain or for lust after pleasure and always let his action be guided by a dispassionate judgment as to that which is the right thing for him to do. The untranslatable Greek word sophrosyne which was sometimes called the master virtue or harmony and unity of all virtues may have connoted something similar to this all-embracing virtue of self-control.
It is inviting to compare by analogy self-control to justice—independently of the question whether justice is a ‘virtue’ in the same sense as self-control or not. I.e.: it is inviting to compare the man who rules his passions by self-control to the state in which justice reigns. This analogy between ‘the state within us’ and ‘the state without’ as is well known is fundamental to Plato's political philosophy.
9. The man of virtue we have said has learnt to conquer some passion.
The conquest of passion presupposes that one has been susceptible to its influence—at least to some extent. If this condition is not fulfilled one's conduct in the relevant situations may be exactly similar to the virtuous man's conduct. Yet one could not be said to possess virtue—except in a purely ‘external’ regard. A man who is totally insensitive to the temptations of pleasure could not be temperate and a man with no amorous passions could not be chaste although ‘outwardly’ his conduct could be the very paragon of temperance and chastity. It may seem more difficult to admit that a man who never experienced fear and thus was literally fearless could not strictly speaking be brave. But this is probably because fear is such a fundamental passion that its total absence in a man comes near to being a mental defect. Halfwits who do not grasp danger as normal men do can show the most astonishing fearlessness e.g. in battle. But there need not be any false resentment behind the hesitation we naturally feel to call such men brave.
How does one achieve the conquest of passion which is a necessary condition of acquiring a virtue? This question is certainly not important only to educationists and psychologists. Its conceptual aspects are interesting too. I shall here touch upon them very lightly only.
According to the explanation of a virtue which we have given the conquest of passion means that the ‘obscuring’ influence of passion on the practical judgment in particular acting-situations has become eliminated. To call the influence ‘obscuring’ is to say that it induces us to make wrong choices i.e. choices which we later have reason to regret and of which we can subsequently say ‘had I surveyed the situation and its implications clearly I should have acted differently’. (Not always of course when we can speak thus is it because some passion has obscured our insight; the mistake we made can e.g. have been a ‘purely intellectual’ mistake about the consequences of our actions.)
The conquest of passion which is the road to a virtue is thus also a gain with a view to our welfare. To subdue passion in that sense of ‘subdue’ and ‘conquer’ of which we are now speaking is a useful thing. Awareness of this usefulness it seems to me must be an important factor in the education to virtues.
How does one become aware of the usefulness of conquering passion? It is by no means obvious that passions must have detrimental influences. To argue that passions too basically serve the good of man does not seem unplausible. Could one not say e.g. that the natural and proper function of fear is to warn of impending danger; fear holds us back and makes us take precautions where otherwise we should easily run into disaster? The question is a little bewildering and from the fact that some passions may have an obvious usefulness it does not follow that they all have. I shall not here try to argue the general question of the usefulness of the passions. It suffices for present purposes to note that there is nothing obviously bad about them and that our natural inclination certainly is to follow their impetus and not to go against it. To realize the usefulness of conquering passion may therefore be connected with considerable difficulties.
A man may come to realize the usefulness of temperance from having suffered the pains consequent upon overeating or the usefulness of industry from having witnessed the miseries of destitution. This is not to say that only through ‘vice’ can one learn ‘virtue’. Only in exceptional cases does the vicious man turn virtuous. But some foretaste of the life of the wicked may be effective and even necessary as a means in the education to a virtue. This foretaste is often provided in the form of discouraging or deterrent examples. A whole genre of literature is concerned with the fictitious setting up of such anti-models of virtues. Its educational or edifying value is often disputed. I shall not enter the disputes of educationists. I shall only say that I think it of some importance for educationists of a certain bent of mind to remember that virtues are no ends in themselves but instruments in the service of the good of man and for educationists of a certain other bent of mind not to lose sight of the fact that it is only by being aware of harmful consequences of yielding to passion that man has a rational ground for aspiring after virtues. For be it observed in this connexion we do not commonly and naturally call the virtues ‘beneficial’. This is significant. The virtues are needed; absence of virtue is a bad thing for us. The goodness of the virtues is that they protect us from harm and not that they supply us with some good. (Cf. Ch. III sect. 1 and Ch. V sect. 10.) This incidentally is why pride of possessing various virtues is stupid conceit and exhibitionism in them a counterfeit of the good life.
There has been much dispute among philosophers whether such and such is a virtue or not. That courage is a virtue has as far as I know never been disputed. But whether charity or chastity or humility are virtues has been put in question.
Disputes of this kind sometimes concern the conceptual status of the objects of dispute. For example: whether they can rightly be called traits of character or whether they are relevantly concerned with choice or with the conquest of passion. Such dispute may be of considerable interest. It may serve to sharpen our idea of a virtue or lead us to distinguish between different kinds of virtues or maybe even between different concepts of a virtue.
But the question whether something is a virtue or not can also have an entirely different meaning. It can ask whether something which undoubtedly is a state of character concerned with choice guided by a rational principle in contest with passion really has the usefulness of a virtue i.e. is needed for protecting our welfare. To question whether something is in this sense a virtue or not may be a thoroughly sensible thing to do. This is so because—as was already noted—it is by no means obvious that the influence of passion on the practical judgment must be obscuring i.e. induce us to make choices which later we have reason to regret. If no such harm is to be expected conquest of passion or thwarting of natural impulse becomes a pseudo-virtue. To encourage pseudo-virtues in oneself or in others is moralistic perversion. But to know whether something is or is not a pseudo-virtue may require great psychological insight into the conditions of man.
It is here good to remember that man's needs and wants and wishes his fears and hopes are not immutable facts of his natural history. They are conditioned by a number of factors which are themselves susceptible to change. We need only think of the important role which religious beliefs have played in the formation of man's views as to what is good or bad for him and therefore also as to what is a virtue or not. Changes in the religious outlook of an age need not affect its conception of what a virtue is. But they may influence the estimation of the importance of various features of character to the good life and therewith also its conception of what is a virtue.
10. There are various ways of dividing the virtues into groups on the basis of characteristic differences and similarities.
Thus for example courage and temperance may be regarded as specimens of two essentially different types of virtues. Courage normally manifests itself in virtuous acts temperance in virtuous abstentions or forbearances. This conceptual asymmetry between the two virtues is a consequence of their different relationships to pleasure and pain i.e. to the hedonic good and bad. The courageous man when acting bravely agrees to suffer or undertakes to do something in itself unpleasant or maybe even painful in order to avoid a future greater evil. The temperate man when showing temperance forsakes an immediate pleasure for a similar reason.
One could suggest the name ascetic virtues for those virtues which because of some conceptual peculiarity of theirs normally manifest themselves in forbearances. Temperance is thus an example of an ascetic virtue. Chastity is another.
Virtues are often also divided into self-regarding and other-regarding virtues. One way of marking the distinction between them is to say that self-regarding virtues essentially serve the welfare of the agent himself who possesses and practises them whereas other-regarding virtues essentially serve the good of other beings. Courage temperance and industry are self-regarding; consideration helpfulness and honesty other-regarding.
The sharpness of the distinction is not obliterated by the obvious fact that virtues which are essentially self-regarding may also be accidentally other-regarding and vice versa. Take courage for example. To be courageous is necessarily a good thing for the brave man himself when he is facing danger—although of course what courage does to help him may become counteracted by other things which work against him. Courage can also be of the greatest importance to action which is done for the sake of others e.g. in battle or when saving our neighbour from disaster. But whether a man's courage is or is not useful in the service of the good of others depends upon the attitude which he happens to take to this good or is compelled to take by external circumstances such as threat of punishment if he flies. The courage which burglars or robbers display can be much to the detriment of their neighbour's welfare. The value of courage from a ‘social’ point of view is therefore accidental; it depends upon the attitude which the brave man happens to take to his fellow-humans.
The virtues we call other-regarding are essentially useful from the neighbour's point of view. The considerate man for example has learnt to conquer the influence of selfish impulses on his judgment as to how his action will interfere with the good of others. That he has learnt this much is already a welcome thing for his neighbour. It means that he can show consideration if he cares for his neighbour's good. He has acquired the necessary mental discipline. And we would of course not call him considerate unless he also cares. But there is a ‘logical gap’ between a man's practical wisdom and his virtue in the case of the other-regarding virtues which is not there in the case of the self-regarding virtues. We can explain the difference as follows:
There is a sense in which a man necessarily will in the particular case practise as much self-regarding virtue as he happens to possess. This follows from the relation as we have defined it (Ch. V sect. 10) of a man's good to that which he wants and shuns and the relation of virtue to knowledge of the right course of action with a view to a man's good.
Knowledge of the right course of action in a particular situation with a view to our neighbour's good involves however no such necessity. For whether action is in accordance with this knowledge or not depends upon whether one wants to do that which one's neighbour would welcome one to do and whether one wants this or not is an entirely contingent matter.
To say that the practising of self-regarding virtue presupposes beside an unobscured judgment also an interest in one's own welfare is not to state a presupposition at all. For the sense in which interest in one's own welfare is presupposed is the sense in which this interest is necessarily there viz. as defined in terms of that which the agent wants (welcomes) and shuns.
To say however that the practising of other-regarding virtues presupposes in addition to an unobscured practical judgment also an interest in the good of some other being is to state a presupposition. It can contingently be fulfilled or not.
To let the other-regarding virtues be in the sense here explained dependent upon contingencies may seem to some unsatisfactory. Is there no sense then in which practising other-regarding virtues is incumbent on man? To think that it is incumbent is to think that it is a man's duty to aspire after and observe virtues independently of what his contingent interests happen to be. With this we have arrived at the big question how considerations of duty and norm are related to considerations of good and evil. The three last chapters of this work will be devoted to a discussion of some aspects of this problem.
- 1. I am indebted to Mr. F. Kemp for having drawn my attention to this distinction.
- 2. Kant uses Tugend mainly to mean virtue in this sense. Kant also calls it Sittlichkeit or moralische Gesinnung. The best English translation is perhaps ‘morality’.
- 3. EN, Bk. VI, Ch. 4.
- 4. EN, 1103a 15.
- 5. EN, 1140b 20–21.
- 6. In EN, 1140b 4–5 Aristotle calls practical wisdom ‘a true and reasoned state of capacity to act with regard to the things that are good and bad for man’
- 7. EN, 1106b 36.