Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 7: Virtue - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 7: Virtue - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Virtue is “the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness.”
According to which definition, “the good of mankind” is the subject; the “will of God,” the rule; and “everlasting happiness,” the motive, of human virtue.
Virtue has been divided by some moralists into benevolence, prudence, fortitude, and temperance.Benevolence proposes good ends; prudence suggests the best means of attaining them; fortitude enables us to encounter the difficulties, dangers, and discouragements, which stand in our way in the pursuit of these ends; temperance repels and overcomes the passions that obstruct it. Benevolence, for instance, prompts us to undertake the cause of an oppressed orphan; prudence suggests the best means of going about it; fortitude enables us to confront the danger, and bear up against the loss, disgrace, or repulse, that may attend our undertaking; and temperance keeps under the love of money, of ease, or amusement, which might divert us from it.
Virtue is distinguished by others into two branches only, prudence and benevolence: prudence, attentive to our own interest; benevolence, to that of our fellow-creatures: both directed to the same end, the increase of happiness in nature; and taking equal concern in the future as in the present.
The four cardinal virtues are, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice.
But the division of virtue, to which we are in modern times most accustomed, is into duties—
Towards God; as piety, reverence, resignation, gratitude, &c.
Towards other men (or relative duties); as justice, charity, fidelity, loyalty, &c.
Towards ourselves; as chastity, sobriety, temperance, preservation of life, care of health, &c.
More of these distinctions have been proposed, which it is not worth while to set down.
I shall proceed to state a few observations, which relate to the general regulation of human conduct; unconnected indeed with each other, but very worthy of attention; and which fall as properly under the title of this chapter as of any future one.
I. Mankind act more from habit than reflection.
It is on few only and great occasions that men deliberate at all; on fewer still, that they institute any thing like a regular inquiry into the moral rectitude or depravity of what they are about to do; or wait for the result of it. We are for the most part determined at once; and by an impulse, which is the effect and energy of pre-established habits. And this constitution seems well adapted to the exigencies of human life, and to the imbecility of our moral principle. In the current occasions and rapid opportunities of life, there is often-times little leisure for reflection; and were there more, a man, who has to reason about his duty, when the temptation to transgress it is upon him, is almost sure to reason himself into an error.
If we are in so great a degree passive under our habits; Where, it is asked, is the exercise of virtue, the guilt of vice, or any use of moral and religious knowledge? I answer, In the forming and contracting of these habits.
And hence results a rule of life of considerable importance, viz. that many things are to be done and abstained from, solely for the sake of habit. We will explain ourselves by an example or two. A beggar, with the appearance of extreme distress, asks our charity. If we come to argue the matter, whether the distress be real, whether it be not brought upon himself, whether it be of public advantage to admit such application, whether it be not to encourage idleness and vagrancy, whether it may not invite impostors to our doors, whether the money can be well spared, or might not be better applied; when these considerations are put together, it may appear very doubtful, whether we ought or ought not to give any thing. But when we reflect, that the misery before our eyes excites our pity, whether we will or not; that it is of the utmost consequence to us to cultivate this tenderness of mind; that it is a quality, cherished by indulgence, and soon stifled by opposition; when this, I say, is considered, a wise man will do that for his own sake, which he would have hesitated to do for the petitioner’s; he will give way to his compassion, rather than offer violence to a habit of so much general use.
A man of confirmed good habits, will act in the same manner without any consideration at all.
This may serve for one instance; another is the following. A man has been brought up from his infancy with a dread of lying. An occasion presents itself where, at the expense of a little veracity, he may divert his company, set off his own wit with advantage, attract the notice and engage the partiality of all about him. This is not a small temptation. And when he looks at the other side of the question, he sees no mischief that can ensue from this liberty, no slander of any man’s reputation, no prejudice likely to arise to any man’s interest. Where there nothing further to be considered, it would be difficult to show why a man under such circumstances might not indulge his humour. But when he reflects that his scruples about lying have hitherto preserved him free from this vice; that occasions like the present will return, where the inducement may be equally strong, but the indulgence much less innocent; that his scruples will wear away by a few transgressions, and leave him subject to one of the meanest and most pernicious of all bad habits—a habit of lying, whenever it will serve his turn: when all this, I say, is considered, a wise man will forego the present, or a much greater pleasure, rather than lay the foundation of a character so vicious and contemptible.
From what has been said, may be explained also the nature of habitual virtue. By the definition of virtue, placed at the beginning of this chapter, it appears, that the good of mankind is the subject, the will of God the rule, and everlasting happiness the motive and end, of all virtue. Yet, in fact, a man shall perform many an act of virtue, without having either the good of mankind, the will of God, or everlasting happiness in his thought. How is this to be understood? In the same manner as that a man may be a very good servant, without being conscious, at every turn, of a particular regard to his master’s will, or of an express attention to his master’s interest: indeed, your best old servants are of this sort: but then he must have served for a length of time under the actual direction of these motives, to bring it to this: in which service, his merit and virtue consist.
There are habits, not only of drinking, swearing, and lying, and of some other things, which are commonly acknowledged to be habits, and called so; but of every modification of action, speech, and thought. Man is a bundle of habits.
There are habits of industry, attention, vigilance, advertency; of a prompt obedience to the judgement occurring, or of yielding to the first impulse of passion; of extending our views to the future, or of resting upon the present; of apprehending, methodising, reasoning; of indolence and dilatoriness; of vanity, self-conceit, melancholy, partiality; of fretfulness, suspicion, captiousness, censoriousness; of pride, ambition, covetousness; of over-reaching, intriguing, projecting: in a word, there is not a quality or function, either of body or mind, which does not feel the influence of this great law of animated nature.
II. The Christian religion hath not ascertained the precise quantity of virtue necessary to salvation.
This has been made an objection to Christianity; but without reason. For as all revelation, however imparted originally, must be transmitted by the ordinary vehicle of language, it behoves those who make the objection to show that any form of words could be devised, that might express this quantity; or that it is possible to constitute a standard of moral attainments, accommodated to the almost infinite diversity which subsists in the capacities and opportunities of different men.
It seems most agreeable to our conceptions of justice, and is consonant enough to the language of Scripture,* to suppose, that there are prepared for us rewards and punishments, of all possible degrees, from the most exalted happiness down to extreme misery; so that “our labour is never in vain”; whatever advancement we make in virtue, we procure a proportionable accession of future happiness; as, on the other hand, every accumulation of vice is the “treasuring up so much wrath against the day of wrath.” It has been said, that it can never be a just oeconomy of Providence, to admit one part of mankind into heaven, and condemn the other to hell; since there must be very little to choose, between the worst man who is received into heaven, and the best who is excluded. And how know we, it might be answered, but that there may be as little to choose in the conditions?
Without entering into a detail of Scripture morality, which would anticipate our subject, the following general positions may be advanced, I think, with safety.
1. That a state of happiness is not to be expected by those who are conscious of no moral or religious rule: I mean those who cannot with truth say, that they have been prompted to one action, or withholden from one gratification, by any regard to virtue or religion, either immediate or habitual.
There needs no other proof of this, than the consideration, that a brute would be as proper an object of reward as such a man, and that, if the case were so, the penal sanctions of religion could have no place. For, whom would you punish, if you make such a one as this happy?—or rather indeed religion itself, both natural and revealed, would cease to have either use or authority.
2. That a state of happiness is not to be expected by those, who reserve to themselves the habitual practice of any one sin, or neglect of one known duty.
Because, no obedience can proceed upon proper motives, which is not universal, that is, which is not directed to every command of God alike, as they all stand upon the same authority.
Because such an allowance would in effect amount to a toleration of every vice in the world.
And because the strain of Scripture language excludes any such hope. When our duties are recited, they are put collectively, that is, as all and every one of them required in the Christian character. “Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity.”P* On the other hand, when vices are enumerated, they are put disjunctively, that is, as separately and severally excluding the sinner from heaven. “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”†
Those texts of Scripture, which seem to lean a contrary way, as that “charity shall cover the multitude of sins”;‡ that “he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way, shall hide a multitude of sins”;§ cannot, I think, for the reasons above mentioned, be extended to sins deliberately, habitually, and obstinately persisted in.
3. That a state of mere unprofitableness will not go unpunished.
This is expressly laid down by Christ, in the parable of the talents, which supersedes all further reasoning upon the subject. “Then he which had received one talent, came and said, Lord, I knew thee that thou art an austere man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed: and I was afraid, and hid thy talent in the earth; lo, there thou hast that is thine. His lord answered and said unto him, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest, (or, knewest thou?) that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed; thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury. Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents; for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath: and cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”*
III. In every question of conduct, where one side is doubtful, and the other side safe; we are bound to take the safe side.
This is best explained by an instance; and I know of none more to our purpose than that of suicide. Suppose, for example’s sake, that it appear doubtful to a reasoner upon the subject, whether he may lawfully destroy himself. He can have no doubt, that it is lawful for him to let it alone. Here therefore is a case, in which one side is doubtful, and the other side safe. By virtue therefore of our rule, he is bound to pursue the safe side, that is, to forbear from offering violence to himself, whilst a doubt remains upon his mind concerning the lawfulness of suicide.
It is prudent, you allow, to take the safe side. But our observation means something more. We assert that the action concerning which we doubt, whatever it may be in itself, or to another, would, in us, whilst this doubt remains upon our minds, be certainly sinful. The case is expressly so adjudged by St. Paul, with whose authority we will for the present rest contented. “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth; and he that doubteth, is damned (condemned) if he eat, for whatsoever is not of faith (i.e. not done with a full persuasion of the lawfulness of it) is sin.”†
[* ]“He which soweth sparingly, shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully, shall reap also bountifully.” 2 Cor. ix. 6. “And that servant which knew his Lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he that knew not, shall be beaten with few stripes.” Luke xii. 47, 48. “Whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ; verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward;” to wit, intimating that there is in reserve a proportionable reward for even the smallest act of virtue. Mark ix. 41. See also the parable of the pounds, Luke xix. 16, &c.; where he whose pound had gained ten pounds, was placed over ten cities; and he whose pound had gained five pounds, was placed over five cities.
[* ]2 Pet. i. 5, 6, 7.
[† ]1 Cor. vi. 9, 10.
[‡ ]1 Pet. iv. 8.
[§]James v. 20.
[* ]Matt. xxv. 24, &c.
[† ]Rom. xiv. 14, 22, 23.