An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals HTML version

VI. Of Qualities Useful To Ourselves
IT seems evident, that where a quality or habit is subjected to our examination, if it
appear in any respect prejudicial to the person possessed of it, or such as incapacitates
him for business and action, it is instantly blamed, and ranked among his faults and
imperfections. Indolence, negligence, want of order and method, obstinacy, fickleness,
rashness, credulity; these qualities were never esteemed by any one indifferent to a
character; much less, extolled as accomplishments or virtues. The prejudice, resulting
from them, immediately strikes our eye, and gives us the sentiment of pain and
No quality, it is allowed, is absolutely either blameable or praiseworthy. It is all
according to its degree. A due medium, says the Peripatetics, is the characteristic of
virtue. But this medium is chiefly determined by utility. A proper celerity, for instance,
and dispatch in business, is commendable. When defective, no progress is ever made in
the execution of any purpose: When excessive, it engages us in precipitate and ill-
concerted measures and enterprises: By such reasonings, we fix the proper and
commendable mediocrity in all moral and prudential disquisitions; and never lose view of
the advantages, which result from any character or habit. Now as these advantages are
enjoyed by the person possessed of the character, it can never be SELF-LOVE which
renders the prospect of them agreeable to us, the spectators, and prompts our esteem and
approbation. No force of imagination can convert us into another person, and make us
fancy, that we, being that person, reap benefit from those valuable qualities, which
belong to him. Or if it did, no celerity of imagination could immediately transport us
back, into ourselves, and make us love and esteem the person, as different from us. Views
and sentiments, so opposite to known truth and to each other, could never have place, at
the same time, in the same person. All suspicion, therefore, of selfish regards, is here
totally excluded. It is a quite different principle, which actuates our bosom, and interests
us in the felicity of the person whom we contemplate. Where his natural talents and
acquired abilities give us the prospect of elevation, advancement, a figure in life,
prosperous success, a steady command over fortune, and the execution of great or
advantageous undertakings; we are struck with such agreeable images, and feel a
complacency and regard immediately arise towards him. The ideas of happiness, joy,
triumph, prosperity, are connected with every circumstance of his character, and diffuse
over our minds a pleasing sentiment of sympathy and humanity.
[Footnote: One may venture to affirm, that there is no human nature, to whom the
appearance of happiness (where envy or revenge has no place) does not give pleasure,
that of misery, uneasiness. This seems inseparable from our make and constitution. But
they are only more generous minds, that are thence prompted to seek zealously the good
of others, and to have a real passion for their welfare. With men of narrow and
ungenerous spirits, this sympathy goes not beyond a slight feeling of the imagination,
which serves only to excite sentiments of complacency or ensure, and makes them apply