Book 2, Chapter 04 : Of Personal Virtue and Duty

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Book 2, Chapter 04




Of virtuous action.-Of a Virtuous agent.-Capacity-in inanimate 
substances -in man.-Inference.-Of benevolent error.-Nature of 
vise.-Illustrations.-Mutability of the principle of belief.-
Complexity in the operation of motives -Deduction.-Of duty.-It is 
never our duty to do wrong.

THERE are two subjects, of the utmost importance to a just delineation of the principles of society, which are, on that account, entitled to a separate examination: the duties incumbent on men living in society, and the rights accruing to them. These are merely different modes of expressing the principle of justice, as it shall happen to be considered in its relation to the agent or the patient. Duty is the treatment I am bound to bestow upon others; right is the treatment I am entitled to expect from them. This will more fully appear in the sequel.

First, of personal virtue and duty.

Virtue, like every other term of general science, may be understood either absolutely, or as the qualification and attribute of a particular being: in other words, it is one thing to inquire whether an action is virtuous, and another to inquire whether a man is virtuous. The former of these questions is considerably simple; the latter is more complex, and will require an examination of several circumstances before it can be satisfactorily determined.

In the first sense I would define virtue to be any action or actions of an intelligent being proceeding from kind and benevolent intention, and having a tendency to contribute to general happiness. Thus defined, it distributes itself under two heads; and, in whatever instance either the tendency or the intention is wanting, the virtue is incomplete. An action, however pure may be the intention of the agent, the tendency of which is mischievous, or which shall merely be nugatory and useless in its character, is not a virtuous action. Were it otherwise, we should be obliged to concede the appellation of virtue to the most nefarious deeds of bigots, persecutors and religious assassins, and to the weakest observances of a deluded superstition. Still less does an action, the consequences of which shall be supposed to be in the highest degree beneficial, but which proceeds from a mean, corrupt and degrading motive, deserve the appellation of virtue. A virtuous action is that, of which both the motive and the tendency concur to excite our approbation.

Let us proceed from the consideration of the action to that of the agent. Before we can decide upon the degree in which any man is entitled to be denominated virtuous, we must compare his performance with his means. It is not enough, that his conduct is attended with an overbalance of good intention and beneficial results. If it appear that he has scarcely produced the tenth part of that benefit, either in magnitude or extent. which he was capable of producing, it is only ill a very limited sense that he can be considered as a virtuous man.

What is it therefore, we are led to inquire, that constitutes the capacity of any man? Capacity is an idea produced in the mind by a contemplation of the assemblage of properties in any substance, and the uses to which a substance so circumstanced may be applied. Thus a given portion of metal, may be formed, at the pleasure of the manufacturer, into various implements, a knife, a razor, a sword, a dozen of coat-buttons, etc. This is one stage of capacity. A second is, when it has already received the form of a knife, and, being dismissed by the manufacturer, falls into the hands of the person who intends it for his private use. By this person it may be devoted to purposes, beneficial, pernicious or idle. - To apply these considerations to the nature of a human being.

We are not here inquiring respecting the capacity of man absolutely speaking, but of an individual; the performer of a given action, or the person who has engaged in a certain series of conduct. In the same manner there fore as the knife may be applied to various purposes at the pleasure of its possessor, so an individual endowed with certain qualifications, may engage in various pursuits, according to the views that are presented to him, and the motives that actuate his mind.

Human capacity however, is a subject attended with greater ambiguity than the capacity of inanimate substances. Capacity assumes something as fixed, and inquires into the temporary application of these permanent qualities. But it is easier to define, with tolerable precision, the permanent qualities of an individual knife, for example, than of an individual man. Everything in man may be said to be in a state of flux; he is a Proteus whom we know not how to detain. That of which I am capable, for instance, as to my conduct today falls extremely short of that of which I am capable as to my conduct in the two or three next ensuing years. For what I shall do today I am dependent upon my ignorance in some things, my want of practice in others, and the erroneous habits I may in any respect have contracted. But many of these disadvantages may be superseded, when the question is respecting what I shall produce in the two or three next years of my life. Nor is this all. Even my capacity of today is in a great degree determinable by the motives that shall excite me. When a man is placed in circumstances of a very strong and impressive nature, he is frequently found to possess or instantaneously to acquire capacities which neither he nor his neighbors previously suspected. We are obliged however in the decisions of morality to submit to these uncertainties. It is only after having formed the most accurate notions we are able respecting the capacity of a man, and comparing this capacity with his performance, that we can decide, with any degree of satisfaction, whether he is entitled to the appellation of virtuous.

There is another difficulty which adheres to this question. Is it the motive alone that we are entitled to take into consideration, that we decide upon the merits of the individual, or are we obliged, as in the case of virtue absolutely taken, to consider both the motives and the tendency of his conduct? The former of these has been frequently asserted. But the assertion is attended with serious difficulties.

First, vise as it is commonly understood is, so far as regards the motive, purely negative. To virtue it is necessary, that it proceed from kind and benevolent intention; but malevolence, or a disposition to draw a direct gratification from the sufferings of others, is not necessary to vise. It is sufficient that the agent regards with neglect those benevolent considerations which are allied to general good. This mode of applying the terms of morality, seems to arise from the circumstance, that, in estimating the merits of others, we reasonably regard the actual benefit or mischief that is produced as the principal point; and consider the disposition that produces it, merely as it tends to ensure to us a continuation of benefit or injury.

Secondly, actions in the highest degree injurious to the public, have often proceeded from motives uncommonly conscientious. The most determined political assassins, Clement, Ravaillac, Damiens and Gerard, seem to have bee deeply penetrated with anxiety, for the eternal welfare of mankind. For these objects they sacrificed their ease, and cheerfully exposed themselves to tortures and death. Benevolence probably had its part in lighting the fires of Smithfield, and pointing the daggers of Saint Bartholomew. The authors of the Gunpowder Treason were, in general, men remarkable for the sanctity of their lives, and the austerity of their manners.

The nature whether of religious imposture, or of persevering enterprise in general, seems scarcely to have been sufficiently developed by the professors of moral inquiry. Nothing is more difficult, than for a man to recommend with enthusiasm, that which he does not think intrinsically admirable. Nothing is more difficult than for a man to engage in an arduous undertaking that he does not persuade himself will in some way be extensively useful. When archbishop Becket set himself against the whole power of Henry the Second, and bore every species of contumely with an unalterable spirit, we may easily discover the haughtiness of the priest, the insatiable ambition that delighted to set its foot upon the neck of kings, and the immeasurable vanity that snuffed with transport the incense of an adoring multitude; but we may see with equal evidence, that he regarded himself as the champion of the cause of God, and expected the crown of martyrdom in a future state.

Precipitate and superficial judges conclude, that he who imposes upon others, is in most cases aware of the delusion himself. But this seldom happens. Self-deception is of all things the most easy. Whoever ardently wishes to find a proposition true, may be expected insensibly to veer towards the opinion that suits his inclination. It cannot be wondered at, by him who considers the subtlety of the human mind,1 that belief should scarcely ever rest upon the mere basis of evidence, and that arguments are always viewed through a delusive medium, magnifying them into Alps, or diminishing them to nothing.

In the same manner as the grounds of our opinions are complicated, so are the motives to our actions. It is probable that no wrong action is perpetrated from motives entirely pure. It is probable that conscientious assassins and persecutors, have some mixture of ambition or the love of fame, and some feelings of animosity and ill will. But the deception they put upon themselves may nevertheless be complete. They stand acquitted at the bar of their own examination; and their injurious conduct, if considered under the head of motive only, is probably as pure as much of that conduct which falls with the best title under the denomination of virtue.

For, thirdly, those actions of men, which tend to increase the general happiness, and are founded in the purest motives, have some alloy in the causes from which they proceed. It has been seen, that the motives of each single action, in a man already arrived at maturity, are innumerable:2 into this mixture it is scarcely to be supposed, that something improper, mean, and inconsistent with that impartial estimate of things which is the true foundation of virtue, will not insinuate itself. It seems reasonable to believe, that such actions as are known most admirably to have contributed to the benefit of mankind, have sprung from views, of all others the least adulterated. But it can not be doubted that many actions, considerably useful, and to a great degree well intended, have had as much alloy in their motive as other actions which, springing from a benevolent disposition, have been extensively detrimental.

From all these considerations it appears, that, if we were to adjust the standard of virtue from intention alone, we should reverse all the received ideas respecting it, giving the palm to some of the greatest pests of mankind, at the expense of others who have been no contemptible benefactors. Intention no doubt is of the essence of virtue. But it will not do alone. In deciding the merits of others, we are bound, for the most part, to proceed in the same manner as in deciding the merits of inanimate substances. The turning point is their utility. Intention is of no further value than as it leads to utility: it is the means, and not the end. We shall overturn therefore every principle of just reasoning if we bestow our applause upon the most mischievous of mankind, merely because the mischief they produce arises from mistake; or if we regard them in any other light than we would an engine of destruction and misery that is constructed of very costly materials.

The reasonings of the early part of this chapter upon the subject of virtue, may equally be applied to elucidate the term duty. Duty is that mode of action on the part of the individual, which constitutes the best possible application of his capacity to the general benefit. The only distinction to be made, between what was there adduced upon the subject of personal virtue, and the observations which most aptly apply to the consideration of duty, consists in this: that, though a man should in some instances neglect the best application of his capacity, he may yet be entitled to the appellation of virtuous; but duty is uniform, and requires of us that best application in every situation that presents itself.

This way of considering the subject furnishes us with the solution of a question which has been supposed to be attended with considerable difficulty. Is it my duty to comply with the dictates of my erroneous conscience? Was it the duty of Everard Digby to blow up king James and his parliament with gunpowder? Certainly not. Duty is the application of capacity to the real, not imaginary, benefit of mankind. It was his duty to entertain a sincere and ardent desire for the improvement and happiness of others. With this duty he probably complied. But it was not his duty to apply that desire to a purpose dreadful and pregnant with inexhaustible mischief. With the prejudices he entertained, perhaps it was impossible for him to do otherwise. But it would be absurd to say that it was his duty to labor under prejudice. Perhaps it will be found that no man can in any instance act otherwise than he does.3 But this, if true, will not annihilate the meaning of the term duty. It has already-been seen that the idea of capacity and the best application of capacity is equally intelligible of inanimate substances. Duty is a species under this generical term, and implies merely the best application of capacity in an intelligent being, whether that application originate in a self-moving power, or in the irresistible impulse of motives and considerations presented to the understanding. To talk of the duty of doing wrong can answer no other purpose than to take away all precision and meaning from language.


1Book I, Chap. V, p. 32.
3Book IV., Chap. VII.

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