Chapter 1a

Different Accounts On the Nature of Virtue

1 Virtue is the temper of mind in the excellent and praise-worthy character. The nature of virtue may be reduced to three classes=

  1. The proper direction of all our feelings. These feelings may be virtuous or vicious according to=
  • their objects and
  • how much they pursue them.

Virtue therefore consists in propriety.

  1. Virtue is in the judicious pursuit of our own private interest and happiness through our selfish feelings. Virtue therefore consists in prudence.
  1. Virtue is in those feelings which only aim at the happiness of others. Therefore, disinterested benevolence is the only motive for virtue.

4 Virtue must either be:

  • ascribed indifferently to all our feelings when under proper government and direction; or
  • confined to some one class of them.

Our feelings are either:

  • selfish
  • benevolent

Therefore, if virtue cannot be assigned to all our feelings, then it must be confined to those which aim directly at the happiness of:

  • ourselves, or
  • others.

Therefore, if virtue does not consist in propriety, it must consist either in prudence or in benevolence.

Chapter 1: Moral Systems which make Virtue consist in Propriety

5 According to Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno, virtue consists in the propriety of conduct.

Plato’s System

6 In Plato’s system, the soul is as a little republic composed of three faculties or orders.

7 The first is the judging faculty, called ‘reason’. It determines:

  • the proper means for attaining any end
  • what ends are fit to be pursued
  • what relative value we should put on each

He saw it as having the right to be the governing principle of the rest. It lets us judge of:

  • truth and falsehood
  • propriety or impropriety

8 The desires often rebel against reason and have 2 classes:

  1. Those in the irritable part of the soul.
  • These are founded on pride and resentment.
  • These desires rise from what we commonly call ‘spirit’ or ’natural fire’.
  • Examples are:
    • ambition
    • animosity
    • the love of honour
    • the dread of shame
    • the desire of victory, superiority, and revenge
  1. Those in the lustful part of the soul leading to the love of pleasure which includes:
  • bodily desires
  • love of ease and security
  • sensual gratifications

9 We rarely break that conduct prescribed by reason. In our cool hours, we laid down that plan to ourselves as the most proper for us to pursue. We break it when prompted by those two sets of passions:

  • the ungovernable ambition and resentment,
  • the importunate solicitations of present ease and pleasure

These two sets of passions often mislead us. However, they are still necessary parts of human nature:

The first defends us against injuries. It asserts our rank and dignity. It makes us aim at noble and honourable acts. It makes us distinguish those who act in the same way. The second provides for bodily necessities.

10 The essential virtue of prudence was placed in the strength, acuteness, and perfection of reason.

According to Plato, prudence consisted in a just and clear discernment, founded on general and scientific ideas. The ends of those ideas were proper to be pursued. Its means for attaining them were proper.

11 Through reason, the irritable passions formed the virtue of fortitude and magnanimity when reason was strong enough to enable them to despise all dangers in the pursuit of honour.

According to Plato’s system, these irritable passions had a more noble nature than the lustful passions. On many occasions, they were considered as the auxiliaries of reason. They check and restrain the inferior and brutal desires.

He observed that when the love of pleasure prompts to do what we disapprove of, we:

  • are often angry at ourselves.
  • often become the objects of our own resentment.

The angry part of our nature is then called in to assist the rational against the lustful.

12 The three parts of our nature are:

  • reason
  • the irritable part
  • the lustful part

The perfect concord of those three is called temperance, good temper, or sobriety and moderation of mind.

This happens when reason:

  • approved of the gratification aimed at by the irritable and lustful parts of the soul, and
  • commanded only what the irritable and lustful parts were willing to perform.


13 According to Plato’s system, justice is the last and greatest of the four cardinal virtues.

Justice took place when:

  • reason, the irritable, and lustful parts of the soul each confined itself to its domain without encroaching on the domain of others,
  • reason directed and passion obeyed, and
  • each passion:
    • performed its proper duty, and
    • exerted itself towards its proper object:
      • easily and without reluctance, and
      • with the suitable force and energy for what it pursued.

Plato called this ‘Justice’, after some of the ancient Pythagoreans.

Justice was the complete virtue.

  • It was the perfect propriety of conduct.

Justice as Restoring Balance

14 The word justice in Greek has several meanings.

In one sense we are said to do justice to our neighbour when we=

  • abstain from doing him any positive harm
  • do not directly hurt him in his person or estate or reputation.

This is that justice I mentioned in Part 2, Section 2, Chapter 2.

Its observance may be extorted by force. Its violation exposes one to punishment.

This first sense coincides with what:

Aristotle and the Schoolmen call commutative justice Grotius calls it justitia expletrix

It consists in [self-command]:

  • abstaining from what is another’s, and
  • doing whatever we can with propriety be forced to do.

In a second sense, we are said not to do justice to our neighbour unless we feel all the love, respect, and esteem for him which is suitable to his character, situation, and his connection with ourselves.

It is in this sense, we are said to do injustice to a good man who is connected with us, if we do not exert to serve him and place him in that situation in which the impartial spectator would be pleased to see him, even if we abstain from hurting him.

This second sense coincides with what:

  • some have called distributive justice

Grotius’ justitia attributrix

It consists in proper beneficence, in:

  • using what is ours
  • using it for the charity or generosity most suitable in our situation

In this sense, justice comprehends all the social virtues.

In a third sense, the word ‘justice’ is more extensive than the two, though very much similar to the second one.

This sense also runs through all languages.

It this sense, we are said to be unjust when we do not value or pursue any object with that degree of esteem or ardour that the impartial spectator feels it should deserve

Thus, we do injustice to a poem or a picture if we do not admire them enough.

We do them more than justice when we admire them too much.

In the same way, we do injustice to ourselves when we do not give enough attention to our objects of self-interest.

In this sense, ‘justice’ means the same thing with exact and perfect propriety of conduct.

It comprehends:

  • commutative and distributive justice
  • every other virtue, of prudence, fortitude, temperance

Plato understands justice in this last sense.

According to him, justice comprehends the perfection of every virtue.

15 According to Plato, virtue consists in that state of mind in which every faculty:

  • confines itself within its proper sphere without encroaching on that of any other
  • performs its office with that strength which belongs to it

His account coincides with what I have said on the propriety of conduct in Part 2, Chapter 1.

Aristotle’s System: Virtue is in the middle ground of feelings

16 According to Aristotle, virtue consists in the habit of mediocrity according to right reason. According to him, every virtue lies in a middle between two opposite vices.

  • One vice offends from being too much affected by objects.
  • The other vice offends from being too little affected by objects.

Thus, the virtue of courage lies in the middle between the opposite vices of cowardice and rashness.

Cowardice offends from being too much affected by the objects of fear. Rashness offends from being too little affected by them.

Thus, the virtue of frugality lies in a middle between avarice and wastefulness.

  • Avarice is an excess of self-interest
  • Wastefulness is a defect of self-interest

In the same way, magnanimity lies in a middle between the excess of arrogance and the defect of timidity. Arrogance is a too-strong feeling of our own worth and dignity. Timidity is a too-weak feeling of our own worth and dignity.

This account of virtue also matches what I said on the propriety of conduct in Part 2, Chapter 1.

17 According to Aristotle, virtue is this moderation of those feelings. He sees virtue as the quality of an action or a person.

  • As the quality of an action, it is the reasonable moderation of the feeling which causes the action
  • As the quality of a person, it is the habit of this moderation.

It consists in being the customary and usual disposition of the mind. Thus, the action which comes from a feeling of generosity is a generous action. But the man who does it is not necessarily a generous person because it may be the only generous action he ever performed. His heart’s motive and disposition may have been proper.

But as this happy mood was the effect of accidental humour, it cannot reflect great honour on him.

When we denominate a character as generous, charitable or virtuous, we mean that that is his usual and customary disposition. Single actions do not prove that he is such.

If a single action was enough to stamp a virtue on its performer, the most worthless person might lay claim to all the virtues.

Since no man has not acted with prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Single actions reflect very little praise for their performer. But a single vicious action greatly reduces and sometimes destroys our opinion of the performer’s virtue.

A single vicious action shows that:

  • his habits are not perfect
  • his usual behaviour is less dependable than we think.

18 When Aristotle established virtue to consist in practical habits, he probably had this in view, to oppose Plato’s doctrine.

Plato thought that the most perfect virtue alone consisted in just sentiments and reasonable judgments on what was fit to be done or to be avoided. According to him, virtue might be considered as a science.

He thought that:

  • everyone could see clearly what was right and what was wrong, and act accordingly
  • our feelings might make us act contrary to doubtful opinions, but not to obvious judgments

On the contrary, Aristotle thought that:

  • long-established habits were stronger than reason
  • good morals arose from action, not from knowledge


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