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CHAPTER XXV.

THE NATURE OF VIRTUE, CONTINUED. DIFFERENT HYPOTHESES.

Aristotle. ARISTOTLE’S idea of the nature of virtue was that it was a mean between two extremes. Virtue, according to him, consisted in the moderate and just exercise of all the affections and passions; and vice, in defect or excess. It would be easy to show that this definition or description is not complete. It is not sufficiently comprehensive, and includes many things not of a moral nature. But it is unnecessary to dwell on the subject, as the definition is no longer used.

Clarke. Dr. Samuel Clarke, who has a long established character as a profound thinker, attempted to give a theory of virtue, which should be free from exception. 172He makes virtue to consist in acting according to the fitness of things. Whatever is fit and suitable to be done, taking in all circumstances, is right. But really, this gives us no conception of that peculiarity which renders an action virtuous. It is true, all virtuous actions are fit to be done, and are actions suitable to the circumstances of the agent. But every fit action is not a virtuous action, and the fitness of many actions depends on their moral character. Their fitness, therefore, does not render them virtuous, but their being virtuous is the very thing which renders them fit.

Wollaston. Wollaston, in his “Religion of Nature Delineated,” refines upon this system, and makes all virtue to consist in a conformity to truth. A virtuous action is one in accordance with the truth of things; which when it comes to be explained, amounts to much the same as Dr. Clarke’s “fitness of things.” Both of them include, no doubt, all virtuous actions, as they are all fit, and all in accordance with truth; but these definitions do not lead us to a conception of that quality in actions which 173is moral. Certainly all virtuous actions must be in accordance with truth and reason, but this is no definition of the nature of virtue; it is only a circuitous method of saying that some actions are virtuous because they have a fitness to produce a good end. This theory supposes the idea of virtue already to exist; for if the end be not good, mere fitness cannot be of the nature of virtue. There are other things which have a fitness to produce certain ends, as well as virtue. It is not mere fitness which renders an action virtuous, but adaptedness to a good end. And unless by truth we understand the same as virtue, it does not appear that a mere conformity to truth gives any conception of a moral quality, and there is as much reality in a vicious action as in one that is virtuous. On this subject Dr. Thomas Brown well observes, “Reason, then, as distinguishing the conformity or unconformity of actions with the fitness of things, or the moral truth or falsehood of actions, is not the principle from which we derive our moral sentiments. These very sentiments, on the contrary, are necessary, before we can feel that moral fitness 174or moral truth, according to which we are said to estimate actions as right or wrong. All actions, virtuous and vicious, have a tendency or fitness of one sort or other; and every action which the benevolent or malevolent perform, with a view to a certain end, may alike have a fitness for producing that end. There is not an action, then, which may not be in conformity with the fitness of things; and if the feelings of exclusive approbation and disapprobation, that constitute our moral emotions, be not presupposed, in spite of the thousand fitnesses which reason may have shown us, all actions must be morally indifferent. They are not thus indifferent because the ends to which reason shows certain actions to be suitable, are ends which we have previously felt to be worthy of our moral choice; and we are virtuous in conforming our actions to these ends, not because our actions have a physical relation to the end, as the wheels and pulleys of a machine have to the motion which is to result from them; but because the desire of producing this very end, has a relation, which has been previously felt, to our moral 175emotion. The moral truth, in like manner, which reason is said to show us, consists in the agreement of our actions with a certain frame of mind which nature has previously distinguished to us as virtuous, without which previous distinction, the actions of the most ferocious tyrant, and of the most generous and intrepid patriot, would be equally true, as alike indicative of the real nature of the oppressor of a nation, and of the assertor and guardian of its rights.” The fitness and the truth, then, in every case, presuppose virtue as an object of moral sentiment.

Adam Smith. The system of Dr. Adam Smith, contained in his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” is very plausible, as stated by its ingenious author, and has captivated many minds, by leading them to believe that the origin of our moral feelings is to be found in the principle of sympathy. According to this able writer, we do not feel the approbation or disapprobation, immediately on the contemplation of virtuous or vicious actions. It is necessary first to go through another process, by which we enter into the feelings of the agent, and of those 176to whom the actions are related, in their consequences, beneficial or injurious. If, on considering all the circumstances in which the agent was placed, we feel a complete sympathy with the feelings by which he was actuated, and with the gratitude or resentment of him who was the object of the action, we approve of the action as right; or disapprove it as wrong, if our sympathies are of the opposite kind. Our sense of the propriety of the action depends on our sympathy with the agent, and our sense of the merit of the agent, on our sympathy with the object of the action. In sympathizing with the gratitude of others, we regard the agent as worthy of reward; in sympathizing with the resentment of others, we regard him as worthy of punishment. When we judge of our own conduct, the foregoing process is in some measure reversed; or rather, by a process still more refined, we imagine others sympathizing with us, and sympathize with their sympathy. We consider how our conduct would appear to an impartial spectator; we approve of it if we feel that he would approve; we disapprove it if we think that he 177would disapprove. According to Dr. Smith, we are able to form a judgment as to our own conduct, because we have previously judged of the moral conduct of others; that is, have sympathized with the feelings of others. And but for the supposed presence of some impartial spectator, as a mirror to represent us to ourselves, we should as little have known the beauty or deformity of our own moral character, as we should have known the beauty or ugliness of our own features without some mirror to reflect them to our eye.

The hypothesis fanciful. That a principle so irregular and capricious as that of sympathy should be made the origin of all our moral distinctions and feelings, is indeed wonderful. One might be tempted to suspect that the gifted author intended to select a subject merely for the display of his ingenuity in framing and defending a plausible hypothesis, and playing on the credulity of his readers.

Untenable. The great error of this hypothesis is one which is common to most others on this subject: it takes for granted the existence of those moral 178feelings which are supposed to flow from sympathy—yea, their existence previous to that very sympathy in which they are said to originate. When we suppose this previous moral feeling, it is easy to understand how we are led to approve of actions when we feel sympathy with the agent; but the most complete sympathy of feeling is not sufficient to account for the existence of moral approbation or disapprobation. When there is nothing more than a sympathy of feelings, without the previous moral sentiment, no such exercise as that which Dr. Smith supposes could ever arise; so that the process which he describes as originating our moral sentiments, never could take place, unless there existed previously a moral feeling in the mind. Assumes what is sought to be explained. In contemplating the beauties of nature or art, we may have a complete feeling of sympathy with another person, our feelings may be in the most exact accordance, and yet no moral approbation of his sentiment of the beautiful be experienced. But if mere agreement in our emotions would 179give rise to moral feeling, it ought to arise vividly in this case, where the emotions may be strong and ill perfect accordance. “Why is it,” says Dr. Brown, “that we regard emotions which do not harmonize with our own, not merely as unlike to ours, but as morally improper? It must surely be because we regard our emotions which differ from them as proper. And if we regard our own emotions as proper before we can judge the emotions which do not harmonize with them to be improper on that account, what influence can the supposed sympathy and comparison have had in giving birth to that moral sentiment which preceded the comparison? The sympathy, therefore, on which the feeling of propriety is said to depend, assumes the previous belief of that very propriety. Or, if there be no previous belief of the moral suitableness of our own emotions, there can be no reason from the mere dissonance of other emotions with ours to regard these dissonant emotions as morally un suitable in the circumstances in which they have arisen.”

Inadequate and defective. The theory of Dr. Smith not only includes 180the sympathy which we feel with the agent of an action, but also with the feelings of gratitude or resentment in the object of the action, as it may affect others with benefit or injury. If we feel that in similar circumstances our emotions would sympathize with theirs, we regard the agent in the same light in which they regard him as worthy of regard in one case, and of punishment in the other; that is, as having moral merit or demerit. It is evident that this is an inadequate and defective account of merit and demerit; for it confines these qualities to actions which relate to the welfare of others; but all impartial men judge that actions of a different kind may have merit or demerit. If a man, from a sincere desire of improvement in virtue, is led to deny himself habitually such gratification of his senses and appetites as would interfere with his progress, and to submit to a course of discipline to overcome evil habits, which is both difficult and painful, and yet perseveres in the midst of numerous temptations to relax, until he has obtained a complete victory over himself; who 181would say that there is nothing in all this to call forth moral approbation? But the actions have no respect to the happiness of others; there is no gratitude or resentment with which the observer can sympathize.

Theory of conformity to the will of God. That theory which considers conformity to the will of God to be virtue, is undoubtedly correct; for that faculty in us which approves of virtuous actions was implanted by Him, and is an induction of his will. As soon as we get the idea of a God we cannot but feel that it is the duty of all creatures to be conformed to his will. But if the question be whether, in judging an action to be virtuous, it is necessary to consider distinctly of its conformity to the will of God, we are of opinion that this conception is not necessary to enable us to perceive that certain actions are morally good and others morally evil. In order to this judgment nothing is required but a knowledge of the circumstances and motives of the action. Even the atheist cannot avoid the conviction that particular actions are praiseworthy, and others deserving 182blame. Dictates of conscience strengthened by Theism. But though belief in the existence of God is not necessary to the exercise of the moral faculty, yet this belief adds great force to the dictates of conscience, and enables us to account for the existence of a faculty by which we discern qualities so opposite in the actions of moral agents. Indeed, to know that our conduct should be conformed to the will of God, supposes the existence of a moral faculty, of which this is one of the intuitive judgments. If we had no moral faculty, the obligation to be conformed to the will of God would not be felt. But intuitive moral perceptions have not this basis. It is true, undoubtedly, that it may be inferred from clear data, that ultimately all duty and all virtuous actions may be referred to the will of God as the standard by which they should be tried. Our original intuitive perception of the moral character of certain actions does not, however, take in this idea, but is an immediate judgment of the mind upon observing such actions. Morality is a quality seen in the actions themselves.

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Morality is presupposed. If the question be asked, why we should be conformed to the will of God? the answer is, because it is right,—morally right. We must then have a faculty of judging respecting moral obligation before we can know and feel that conformity to the will of God is right.

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