An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals HTML version

Appendix IV. Of Some Verbal Disputes
Nothing is more usual than for philosophers to encroach upon the province of
grammarians; and to engage in disputes of words, while they imagine that they are
handling controversies of the deepest importance and concern. It was in order to avoid
altercations, so frivolous and endless, that I endeavoured to state with the utmost caution
the object of our present enquiry; and proposed simply to collect, on the one hand, a list
of those mental qualities which are the object of love or esteem, and form a part of
personal merit; and on the other hand, a catalogue of those qualities which are the object
of censure or reproach, and which detract from the character of the person possessed of
them; subjoining some reflections concerning the origin of these sentiments of praise or
blame. On all occasions, where there might arise the least hesitation, I avoided the terms
VIRTUE and VICE; because some of those qualities, which I classed among the objects
of praise, receive, in the English language, the appellation of TALENTS, rather than of
virtues; as some of the blameable or censurable qualities are often called defects, rather
than vices. It may now, perhaps, be expected that before we conclude this moral enquiry,
we should exactly separate the one from the other; should mark the precise boundaries of
virtues and talents, vices and defects; and should explain the reason and origin of that
distinction. But in order to excuse myself from this undertaking, which would, at last,
prove only a grammatical enquiry, I shall subjoin the four following reflections, which
shall contain all that I intend to say on the present subject.
First, I do not find that in the English, or any other modern tongue, the boundaries are
exactly fixed between virtues and talents, vices and defects, or that a precise definition
can be given of the one as contradistinguished from the other. Were we to say, for
instance, that the esteemable qualities alone, which are voluntary, are entitled to the
appellations of virtues; we should soon recollect the qualities of courage, equanimity,
patience, self-command; with many others, which almost every language classes under
this appellation, though they depend little or not at all on our choice. Should we affirm
that the qualities alone, which prompt us to act our part in society, are entitled to that
honourable distinction; it must immediately occur that these are indeed the most valuable
qualities, and are commonly denominated the SOCIAL virtues; but that this very epithet
supposes that there are also virtues of another species. Should we lay hold of the
distinction between INTELLECTUAL and MORAL endowments, and affirm the last
alone to be the real and genuine virtues, because they alone lead to action; we should find
that many of those qualities, usually called intellectual virtues, such as prudence,
penetration, discernment, discretion, had also a considerable influence on conduct. The
distinction between the heart and the head may also be adopted: the qualities of the first
may be defined such as in their immediate exertion are accompanied with a feeling of
sentiment; and these alone may be called the genuine virtues: but industry, frugality,
temperance, secrecy, perseverance, and many other laudable powers or habits, generally
stiled virtues are exerted without any immediate sentiment in the person possessed of
them, and are only known to him by their effects. It is fortunate, amidst all this seeming
perplexity, that the question, being merely verbal, cannot possibly be of any importance.
A moral, philosophical discourse needs not enter into all these caprices of language,