Chapter V: Ethics in Relation to Conduct.

§ 106.

In order, however, justly to consider the claims of virtue to intrinsic value, it is necessary to distinguish several very different mental states, all of which fall under the general definition that they are habitual dispositions to perform duties. We may thus distinguish three very different states, all of which are liable to be confused with one another, upon each of which different moral systems have laid great stress, and for each of which the claim has been made that it alone constitutes virtue, and, by implication, that it is the sole good. We may first of all distinguish between (a) that permanent characteristic of mind, which consists in the fact that the performance of duty has become in the strict sense a habit, like many of the operations performed in the putting on of clothes, and (b) that permanent characteristic, which consists in the fact that what may be called good motives habitually help to cause the performance of duties. And in the second division we may distinguish between the habitual tendency to be actuated by one motive, namely, the desire to do duty for duty’s sake, and all other motives, such as love, benevolence, etc. We thus get the three kinds of virtue, of which we are now to consider the intrinsic value. (§ 106 ¶ 1)

(a) There is no doubt that a man’s character may be such that he habitually performs certain duties, without the thought ever occurring to him, when he wills them, either that they are duties or that any good will result from them. Of such a man we cannot and do not refuse to say that he possesses the virtue consisting in the disposition to perform those duties. I, for instance, am honest in the sense that I habitually abstain from any of the actions legally qualified as thieving, even where some other persons would be strongly tempted to commit them. It would be grossly contrary to common usage to deny that, for this reason, I really have the virtue of honesty: it is quite certain that I have an habitual disposition to perform a duty. And that as many people as possible should have a like disposition is, no doubt, of great utility: it is good as a means. Yet I may safely assert that neither my various performances of this duty, nor my disposition to perform them, have the smallest intrinsic value. It is because the majority of instances of virtue seem to be of this nature, that we may venture to assert that virtues have, in general, no intrinsic value whatsoever. And there seems to be good reason to think that the more generally they are of this nature the more useful they are; since a great economy of labour is effected when a useful action becomes habitual or instinctive. But to maintain that a virtue which includes no more than this, is good in itself is a gross absurdity. And of this gross absurdity, it may be observed, the Ethics of Aristotle is guilty. For his definition of virtue does not exclude a disposition to perform actions in this way, whereas his descriptions of the particular virtues plainly include such actions: that an action, in order to exhibit virtue, must be done τοῦ καλοῦ ἓνεκα is a qualification which he allows often to drop out of sight. And, on the other hand, he seems certainly to regard the exercise of all virtues as an end in itself. His treatment of Ethics is indeed, in the most important points, highly unsystematic and confused, owing to his attempt to base it on the naturalistic fallacy; for strictly we should be obliged by his words to regard θεωπία as the only thing good in itself, in which case the goodness which he attributes to the practical virtues cannot be intrinsic value; while on the other hand he does not seem to regard it merely as utility, since he makes no attempt to shew that they are means to θεωπία. But there seems no doubt that on the whole he regards the exercise of the practical virtues as a good of the same kind as (i.e. having intrinsic value), only in a less degree than, θεωπία; so that he cannot avoid the charge that he recommends as having intrinsic value, such instances of the exercise of virtue as we are at present discussing—instances of a disposition to perform actions which, in the modern phrase, have merely an external rightness. That he is right in applying the word virtue to such a disposition cannot be doubted. But the protest against the view that external rightness is sufficient to constitute either duty or virtue—a protest which is commonly, and with some justice, attributed as a merit to Christian morals—seems, in the main, to be a mistaken way of pointing out an important truth: namely, that where there is only external rightness there is certainly no intrinsic value. It is commonly assumed (though wrongly) that to call a thing a virtue means that it has intrinsic value: and on this assumption the view that virtue does not consist in a mere disposition to do externally right actions does really constitute an advance in ethical truth beyond the Ethics of Aristotle. The inference that, if virtue includes in its meaning good in itself, then Aristotle’s definition of virtue is not adequate and expresses a false ethical judgment, is perfectly correct: only the premise that virtue does include this in its meaning is mistaken. (§ 106 ¶ 2)