Chapter 26.

The Nature of Virtue. (Continued).


VIRTUE is a peculiar quality of certain actions of a moral agent, which quality is perceived by the moral faculty with which every man is endued; and the perception of which is accompanied by an emotion which is distinct from all other emotions, and is called moral. This quality being of a nature perfectly simple, does not admit of being logically defined, any more than the colour of the grass, the taste of honey, the odour of a rose, or the melody of tune.


As some actions are morally good, which are virtuous; so there are other actions which are morally evil, or vicious. The perception of these, also, is accompanied by a feeling of a moral Virtue, then, may be said to be that quality in certain actions which is perceived by a rational mind to be good; and vice, or sin, is that which a well-constituted and well-informed mind sees to be evil.

The moral faculty necessary.

Whatever may be the rule or standard of virtuous actions, the immediate judgment of the moral faculty on contemplating the act is necessary. Without a moral faculty we never could have the least idea of a moral quality, good or bad; therefore all actions must be brought before this faculty, and its judgment is ultimate. We can go no further. While the good or evil of some actions is self-evident, much discrimination and reasoning are requisite to arrive at a clear view of the true moral character of others. But the end of these processes is to bring the true nature of the action in question fairly before the mind, when it is judged by the moral faculty. Those actions, then, which a sound and well-informed mind judges to be morally good, are virtuous, and those which such a mind judges or feels to be evil, are sinful.

The moral judgment is peculiar.

As has already been explained when treating of conscience, the judgment of the mind respecting moral qualities, is the judgment of the understanding, and differs from other judgments only by the subject under consideration. The mind must possess the faculty of moral perception, of which all the inferior animals are destitute. To see that an action is useful, and will produce happiness to him that performs it, or to others, is one thing; but to perceive that it is morally good, is quite a distinct idea; and virtue and mere utility should never be confounded. It may be thought that this account of virtue makes the moral faculty the only standard of moral excellence. In one sense, this is true. It is impossible for us to judge any action to be virtuous, which does not approve itself when fairly contemplated by our moral sense. To suppose otherwise, would be to think that we had some other faculty by which to judge of moral actions than the moral faculty. Whether infallible. As no judgment of colours can be formed but by the eye, nor of sounds but by the ear, nor of odours and tastes out by the senses of smelling and tasting; so no judgment can be formed on moral subjects, but by the moral faculty. It may be asked, then, whether the judgments of this faculty are infallible, and if so, how it is that we have so many discrepant opinions, respecting the morality of actions. To which it may be answered, that when the mind is in a sound state, and any moral action is presented to it, with all the circumstances which belong to it, the judgment of this faculty is always correct and uniform in all men. As an eye in a sound state judges infallibly of colours, in which judgment all in precisely the same circumstances will agree in their perceptions; so it is in regard to moral qualities. If in looking at an object, one man has more light than another, or if one occupies a more favourable point of observation, the object will appear differently to the persons thus situated; but this does not argue that their eyes are differently constructed, or that there is any other faculty than the eye, by which the object may be surveyed. So, in regard to moral qualities, when they are presented to different minds with precisely the same evidence, the moral judgment will be the same. Discrepant judgments, whence. The differences observable in the dictates of the consciences of men, may be all traced to some cause which prevents the object from being perceived in its true light; such as ignorance, error, or prejudice. In regard to sin and duty, the ultimate appeal must be to conscience. We may bring considerations of various kinds to bear on the conscience, or to enlighten the mind, so that the moral faculty may be rightly guided; but still our ultimate rule must be the judgments of our own moral faculty.

New relations occasion views of new duties.

And here it may be remarked, that con science will recognise every new relation into which a moral agent enters, and will dictate the obligation to perform the duties obviously arising out of such relations. Or, if such an agent should for a time be ignorant of its relations, and afterwards discover them, it would, upon such discovery, feel an obligation not before experienced. Let us then suppose the case of a child educated in a cave, who, while the intellectual powers were cultivated, and the faculties developed, had never been informed respecting the existence of its parents and the relation it sustains to them. Of course, while in this state of ignorance, there would be no sense of obligation to them; but so soon as the nature of this relation should be clearly made known, the obligation to the obvious duties arising out of this relation, would immediately be felt. Let it be supposed, also, that this human being, until grown to maturity, had never heard of God, and of course possessed no idea of such a being.

Duty of a creature as such.

While in that state of ignorance, it could have no sense of the obligation to reverence, love and serve its Creator; but as soon as the mind should take in distinctly, the conception of God as the Author of its being, and as possessed of every adorable attribute, the duties arising out of this newly-discovered relation, would be felt to be obligatory. The will of God seen to be obligatory. A just consideration of this relation would lead to the conclusion that, in everything, the will of such a Being, standing in such a relation to the creature, should be obeyed. Thus the important principle would be learned, that the will of God, so far as made known by reason or revelation, should be the supreme rule of moral conduct. Conscience, henceforth, would act under the influence of this truth. And making the will of God—so far as made known—the supreme and only rule of moral conduct, would not be found at all inconsistent with the obligation to obey the dictates of conscience; for it would now become evident that God, being the author of our minds, had constituted them with this moral faculty, to admonish them of duty, so that the dictates of an enlightened conscience are the clear indications of the law or will of God. It is the law written on the hearts of all men.

Virtue predicable only of objects of moral approbation.

Nothing can be considered as partaking of the nature of virtue which does not meet with the approbation of the moral faculty. This will by some be thought a dangerous principle, merely from a misapprehension of its nature. They allege that the will of God is the only perfect and immutable standard of moral rectitude. They allege, moreover, that to define virtue to be only such actions as the moral faculty in man approves, is to make it a very uncertain and fluctuating thing, depending on the variable and discrepant moral feelings of men.

Answer to objection.

This objection confounds two things which should be kept distinct, viz., the quality of an object and the light or medium through which it is viewed. The colour of an object can be perceived only by the eye; but in order to have the object fairly before the eye, there must be light reflected from it, and that light on entering the pupil, must be reflected so as to be conveyed to a focus on the retina. But without an eye it would be useless to descant ever so long or so learnedly on the nature of colours, or the laws by which light is reflected and refracted. In the case of sight, it is evident that all the perception which is experienced, must be by the eye. If the light is insufficient, it must be increased, and if any cause hinders it from being duly refracted, vision will not take place; but still, it is only by the eye that we can have any perception of colours.

Analogy of taste.

Perhaps an illustration, drawn from the faculty of taste, may be more appropriate. A beautiful landscape is presented; I am charmed with its beauty. This emotion or feeling of the beautiful depends on the faculty of taste. If that were absent, I might see all the objects as they stand, and perceive nothing of the beautiful. Beauty in the works of nature or art can be perceived only by taste, and the emotion will depend on the perfection of the faculty, provided the object is presented in a favourable light. A person of cultivated taste sees beauties where a rude savage sees none. Thus also in regard to moral acts, or a connected series of moral actions, every idea and feeling of a moral kind must as necessarily be through the moral faculty as colours through the organ of vision. We have no other faculty which takes cognizance of moral qualities. The judgments and emotions which are produced by the contemplation of such actions, are always infallibly correct, when the mind is duly enlightened and the faculty itself in a sound and healthy state. There is no inconsistency between this opinion and that which considers the will of God as the real standard and ultimate rule of moral conduct. 

Moral feelings dependent on the dictates of understanding.

For, as has been shown, although conscience can act within a narrow sphere without even the knowledge or belief of a God; yet so soon as this knowledge is obtained, and the mind recognises its relation to its Creator, a new field is opened for the operations of conscience. It is soon perceived that the clear dictates of conscience, in cases of self-evident truth, are nothing else than the indication of the law of God written on the heart of every man, as was before taught. We can refer to the will of God as a rule of moral conduct no other way than by the exercise of the moral faculty, by which it is clearly perceived that our Creator and Preserver has a just claim on our obedience, and ought in all things to be obeyed. But if conscience did not thus dictate, all appeals to the will of God, to show what is morally right, would be in vain. The certainty and immutability of our moral standard of rectitude will then be in proportion to the knowledge which the mind possesses of the existence of God and the creature’s relation to Him. Instead, therefore, of making our moral feelings mere instinctive emotions, as is done by Hutcheson and Shaftesbury, we make them depend on the clear dictates of the understanding; for, as we have often explained, the judgments of conscience are no other than the understanding judging on moral subjects.

Evil of attempting undue simpification.

If that, and that alone is virtue, which is approved by a mind duly enlightened, and in a sound state, then the attempt to reduce all virtuous actions to someone kind—as to benevolence, for example—is not the way to arrive at the truth. For while benevolent actions generally meet with the approbation of the moral faculty, we can easily conceive of an exercise of benevolence which, instead of being approved. would be viewed as morally indifferent, or merely amiable—as a natural affection, or even as evil. We never ascribe morality to the kind feeling of brutes to one another. The natural affection of parents, called storge by the Greeks, is no more of a moral nature than the same affection in inferior animals. The natural affection of our relatives, our neighbours, and countrymen, is amiable and useful, but not of a moral character. If a judge should feel a strong benevolence toward all criminals, so as to avoid inflicting on them the penalty of the wholesome laws of the country, we should judge it wicked. It might be said that a benevolence which counteracts a greater good, is not virtuous but sinful; yet it is an exercise of benevolence, and serves, on the concession of those who make all virtue to consist in benevolence, to show that all benevolence is not virtue, which is the very thing to be proved. Again, there are acts of moral agents, which have nothing of the nature of benevolence, yet which the moral faculty judges to be morally good. For example, if a man for the sake of moral improvement, denies himself some gratification which would in itself be pleasing to nature, we judge such self-denial to be virtuous.

Prudence a Virtue.

A thousand acts of prudence which have regard to our own best interests, without interfering with the interest of others, have always been reckoned virtuous. Indeed, among the ancient sages, prudence was one of the four cardinal virtues. The attempt, therefore, to reduce all virtue to the simple exercise of benevolence, must be unsuccessful. It is so evident that some actions which have our own welfare as their object, are virtuous, that rather than give up their theory that all virtue consists in benevolence, they enlarge the meaning of the word, so as to make it include a due regard to our own welfare. But this is really to acknowledge that al] virtue does not consist in benevolence, according to the usual meaning of that word. Any term may be made to stand for the whole of virtue, if you choose to impose an arbitrary meaning upon it. Benevolent affections, however, is a phrase which has as fixed and definite a meaning as any in the language, and by all good writers is used for good will to others. Benevolent affections are, therefore, constantly distinguished from such as are selfish. If, however, any one chooses, contrary to universal usage, to employ the words in a sense so comprehensive as to include self-love, be it so. We will not dispute with such a one, about the meaning of the word, provided he agree that the judicious pursuit of our own improvement and happiness is virtuous.

Actions to be classified.

To determine how many different kinds of actions are virtuous, we must pass them in review before the moral faculty, and then classify them; being in the whole process governed by the light of true knowledge, and taking into view all the relations in which the human race, or any portion of it, is placed. Something of this kind we may attempt in the sequel of this work; in which we shall endeavour to survey the moral duties incumbent on men, in their various relations.