"I hold virtue in general, or the virtues severally, to be only in the Disposition, each a feeling, not a principle."
--Lord Byron, letter to Robert Charles Dallas Jan. 21, 1808. (1)
Virtue Ethics as the Third Way
British Romantic writers advance an ethics that absorbs, resists, and transforms other ethical schools of the time, from Hobbesian egoism to an ethics of moral sense and the sentiments to Kantian formalism to hedonistic utilitarianism. These amateurs profoundly advance the work of philosophy. They seek a rich plurality of values against a backdrop of what they regard as a diminishment of values, seen in the flawed ethical systems of the day, in the early promise of the French Revolution betrayed, and in what they regard as the bleak ethical implications of the emergent Industrial Revolution, where persons are increasingly conceived of as things. As embattled radical humanists aware of their own deficits and contradictions, the Romantics give strong voice to a will to value--a value pluralism not limited to pleasure or happiness, as the hedonistic utilitarians argue, and with a concept of conscience that does not fracture the self, as Kantian formalism seems to do. (2)
The Romantics doubt the sufficiency of either a deontological ethics such as Kantian formalism or a teleological ethics such as British utilitarianism. They tend to confirm the common view that both the intrinsic Tightness or wrongness of our acts and a consideration of their probable consequences are keys to the moral life. The Romantics' approach to the two schools is complex and not always dismissive, whether in prose writings or, by implication, literary works. Coleridge greatly admires aspects of Kantian ethics--especially its emphasis on the "good will" and the precious distinction between persons and things. At the same time he finds Kant a dubious psychologist--for example, making a rigorous distinction between duty and inclination. Respect (Achtung) for the moral law--for the categorical imperative--must have a feeling component, not rational recognition alone. (3)
As for utilitarianism, Coleridge, Hazlitt, the later Shelley, and others resist the hedonistic utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and William Godwin. But one form that emerges many decades after the Romantic era--by some, termed "ideal utilitarianism" and associated mostly with Hastings Rashdall and G. E. Moore--is consistent with much Romantic thought: the good should be sought as an end but good is plural, not reducible to pleasure or happiness. Coleridge pointedly anticipates Moore's famed argument for the indefinability of "good"--one cannot substitute any other word for good, such as "pleasure" or "happiness," without begging the question of whether good is summed up by that word. (4) As Coleridge asks rhetorically, "The sum total of Moral philosophy is found in this one question--Is 'Good' a superfluous word?--or lazy synonime for the pleasurable ... ?" (5) Instead, for Coleridge the "good" consists of a plurality of values of which pleasure is only one. Asia's inventory of the gifts of Prometheus in Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1819) does not even include the pleasure and happiness that a younger Shelley, still under the [?] sway of Godwin, had thought the end of all human action. Instead, Prometheus is himself a "value pluralist" who gives humankind speech, science, music, art, health, cities, wisdom, and love, with a single imperative, "Let man be free." (6) (Value pluralism is a philosophically precise perspective, in no way analogous to the "critical pluralism" often taken to be a cop-out in modern literary theory.) And like John Stuart Mill after him, Shelley makes qualitative distinctions among the pleasures in A Defence of Poetry (1819) (SPP, 528-29). Since the Romantics are teleologists more than they are deontologists, a transformed utilitarianism has its appeal.
The oppositional character of European moral schools as they developed historically is inscribed internally in the Romantics' augmented conception of human personality and moral value. Romantic moral psychology recapitulates structurally the historical dialogue of European ethics that preceded it. Put succinctly, the diachrony of philosophical debate from Hobbes to the early nineteenth century becomes for the Romantics the synchrony of the self's mental theater. Hobbes is not simply repudiated; psychological egoism--the view that what we do is necessarily motivated by self-interest--remains an element of the human psyche. In a less absolutist way, egoism persists in the Romantics as its dark side, but it also girds up the self's vitality. Godwin's rationalism persists in the many Romantic writers he influenced, but reason is rehabilitated as a mental faculty and makes its accommodation with sensibility. Blake's bearded and crusty Urizen is rejuvenated and reunited with the other Zoas, including Luvah or human feeling, in Night the Ninth of Vala/The Four Zoas.
In finding aspects of both deontological and teleological ethics alluring but wanting, and in foregrounding instead the intrinsic qualities of the self or moral agent, the Romantics participated in what has come by many to be considered the third major school of normative ethical thought--termed "virtue ethics." Hardly a new concept, virtue ethics has roots in Plato and especially Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics. Though Benthamite utilitarianism and Kantian formalism were dominant in the later eighteenth century, virtue ethics was implicit in the late seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries in the moral sense and sympathy theories of the Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. Virtue ethics in modern times is discussed, with varying degrees of commitment and dissociation, by Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Alasdair Maclntyre, Iris Murdoch, Christine Swanton, and Bernard Williams, among many others. (7) But Martha Nussbaum challenges the very idea that virtue ethics is a distinct third category since both deontologists and teleologists argue the importance of the virtues, Kant himself writing an entire treatise on the subject, The Doctrine of Virtue, Part II of The Metaphysics of Morals (1797), that has only recently been given fuller attention. (8)
My intent here is not to resolve the complex and fairly heated issue as to whether virtue ethics is a viable category in itself, let alone describe in shorthand the intricacies of the field as a whole, but only to suggest that, right or wrong, the discourse of Romantic ethics strikingly anticipates modern formulations broadly considered. Intellectual anticipations are in themselves of little import unless, as is the case here, issues that arise in later formulations have a retroactive explanatory force--as will be my principal contention with respect to the Romantics' representations of human action. My discussion has as its ironic backdrop Irving Babbitt's early insistence that "there is no such thing as romantic morality," (9) to which I shall return later.
Virtue ethicists tend to agree on one simple proposition, and on little else: that the chief concern of moral judgment is not so much acts and consequences, or universalizable rules of duty, whether teleological or deontological, as it is the particular virtues or vices that make up the character of the moral agent. Such ethicists frequently note that we face the existential crunch of decision-making from time to time only, but how we lead our daily lives and what kind of human beings we become are questions always with us. Our virtues are deep-seated predispositions that manifest themselves everyday over a lifetime, in need early on of being "educed," led out from latency into full bloom. (10) One simple reduction within virtue ethics is that being more than doing is where moral truth resides.
An oft-registered complaint with virtue ethics is that, unlike deontology and teleology, it does not mandate one or another action; it does not tell us what to do. Instead, it assumes that if the character of the human agent is virtuous, acts and consequences will more or less take care of themselves--with, yes, a little bit of luck. In modern formulations, virtue ethics has emphasized the value of virtue itself (arete, or personal excellence in a constellation of virtues, however designated), practical wisdom (phronesis), and self-flourishing (eudaimonia, the happiness that ideally attends the virtuous life).
There is no inevitability or built-in sufficiency about these three. Virtue ethicists disagree on what is fundamental and, with respect to the first category, whether any comprehensive or hierarchical listing of the virtues can ever be made. Plato lists four, Aristotle, twelve, Aquinas four cardinal virtues and three theological, while a recent eight-hundred page guide to the virtues lists six major virtues, each of which has many subvirtues, as it were. Following Nel Noddings, feminist virtue ethicists argue that "compassion" or "caring" should be foremost and is most inclusive. (11)
Though they ruminated on all three in their fashion, the Romantics in their concept of virtue or arete centered implicitly on "self-realization," an ill-fated term that Coleridge himself apparently coined, as well as "self-actualization," in a notebook entry around 1815, an abstruse response to Fichte's The Science of Ethics (1798). Kathleen Coburn explains that Coleridge is not translating Fichte but is "trying to cut through the meandering of Fichte's argument to extract its main lines in terms that have meaning to him." Coleridge writes, "However, we yet do distinguish our Self from the Object, tho' not in the primary Intuition--Visio visa--now this is impossible without an act of abstraction--we abstract from our own product--the Spirit snatches it(self) loose from its own self-immersion, and self-actualizing distinguishes itself from its Self-realization--But this is absolutely impossible otherwise...