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Virtue as Loving the Good

  • Thomas Hurka (a1)


In a chapter of The Methods of Ethics entitled “Ultimate Good”, Henry Sidgwick defends hedonism, the theory that pleasure and only pleasure is intrinsically good, that is, good in itself and apart from its consequences. First, however, he argues against the theory that virtue is intrinsically good. Sidgwick considers both a strong version of this theory — that virtue is the only intrinsic good — and a weaker version — that it is one intrinsic good among others. He tries to show that neither version is or can be true.

Against the strong version of the theory, Sidgwick argues as follows. Virtue is a disposition to act rightly, and right action is identified by the good it promotes. (He believes the second, consequentialist premise has been justified by his lengthy critique of nonconsequentialist moralities in Book III of The Methods of Ethics.) But this means that treating virtue as the only intrinsic good involves a “logical circle”: virtue is a disposition to promote what is good, where what is good is itself just a disposition to promote what is good. Virtue turns out to be a disposition to promote virtue.

As Hastings Rashdall notes in a commentary on Sidgwick, one can accept many of this argument's premises yet reject its conclusion. One can agree that right action is identified by its consequences but still hold that virtue is the only intrinsic good. One can do this if one denies that the relevant consequences are good. This is the Stoic view: certain states are “preferred”, and thus supply the criterion of right action, but are not themselves intrinsically good.



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1 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1907), p. 392.

2 Hastings Rashdall, “Professor Sidgwick's Utilitarianism”, Mind, old series, vol. 10 (1885), p. 207.

3 Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 396; see also p. 393.

4 The love of what is instrumentally good is often itself instrumentally good, if it encourages one to promote what is good. But this is a matter of empirical fact, not of moral principle. Clause (3) says that loving what is instrumentally good is good intrinsically, that is, good apart from its effects, because it is an appropriate response to one kind of good.

5 Rashdall, , The Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press, 1907), p. 59; see also pp. 63–67, and “Professor Sidgwick's Utilitarianism”, pp. 207–8.

6 Aristotle, , Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David, Ross (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 1175b24–30. The connection with virtue is that “moral virtue and vice are concerned with pleasures and pains” (ibid., 1152b5–6; see also 1104b8–1105b13).

7 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), ch. 6.

8 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), p. 160.

9 Desire (a) must be read opaquely, as the desire to bring into being something because it is good. This is both evident from the context (see ibid., esp. p. 161) and necessary to prevent desire (b) from falling under desire (a). But this reading of desire (a) leaves a lacuna in Ross's account. If it is good, and an exercise of virtue, to desire pleasure for itself without thinking it good, why is it not also good to desire knowledge and virtue for themselves without thinking them good? The special status (if any) of the desire for things as good is discussed in Section V below.

10 Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), pp. 429–33.

11 See Ross, The Right and the Good, pp. 134–35.

12 More generally, the recursive account captures the view shared by many that there is special value in the search for knowledge, as opposed to the mere possession of knowledge; see Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 152.

13 Ibid., pp. 157–60.

14 Philippa Foot suggests this view in the title essay of her Virtues and Vices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 4–5.

15 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1144a8, 1144a26.

16 Ibid., 1105a34.

17 Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Westminster, Maryland: Christian Classics, 1981), Ia-IIae, question 74, article 8.

18 Adams, Robert M., “Involuntary Sins”, The Philosophical Review, vol. 94 (1985), pp. 331.

19 Ross, The Right and the Good, pp. 149–54.

20 Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 2, p. 37.

21 Ibid., p. 47.

22 Moore, Principia Ethica, pp. 219–20.

23 Aristotle, , Politics, trans. Benjamin, Jowett, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard, McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), 1263a25–b14. Aristotle is criticizing Plato's proposals about communal property in the Republic, but in doing so he mentions only the effects on those who will be rich under a system of private property, and never the effects on those who will be poor.

24 See, for example, Lomasky, Loren, Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 253.

25 The phrase is Michael Slote's; see his Common-Sense Morality and Consequentialism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1985), ch. 1.

26 Ross, W. D., The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1939), pp. 271–89.

27 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1104b5–6.

28 Ibid., 1123a33–1125a35.

29 Sir Ross, David, Aristotle (London: Methuen, 1949), p. 208.

30 Williams, Bernard, “Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence”, in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 4053.

31 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1124b9–12.

32 Williams, “Utilitarianism and Moral Self-Indulgence”, p. 47.

33 Ibid., p. 45.

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