Virtue as an End and as a Means

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

Intellectual virtues — the goods of the mind — occupy a high rank, if not the highest, in the scale of real goods. Moral virtue, while involving no form of knowledge, has an intellectual aspect, for it manifests the role played by reason and will in the control and moderation of the passions.

Together these virtues represent the greatest human perfections that can be achieved by learning and personal growth. These are the goods of mind and character that the pursuits of leisure aim at. They constitute the ends for which leisuring is the means.

But while they are ends, desirable for their own sake, they are also means to a good life. They are among its most important ingredients or components. A life not enriched by these goods would be greatly deprived, just as a life devoid of leisuring would be a contracted one.

Only happiness itself — a whole good life — is an ultimate end, never a means to be sought for the sake of some other good. Happiness, being the sum of all real goods, leaves no other good to be desired. That is why happiness should never be referred to as the summum bonum (the highest good), but rather as the totum bonum (the complete good).

The virtues may be the highest of all human goods, but taken all together, they are certainly not the complete good. One can have all the virtues and still lack freedom, friendship, health, and moderate amounts of pleasure and of wealth. A virtuous person deprived of all these things would certainly be prevented from living well or achieving happiness in the course of time.

I have explained how the virtues are both ends, desirable for their own sake, and also means, desirable for the sake of a good life. I must now go further and explain how moral virtue, from which prudence is inseparable, differs from the intellectual virtues as means.

All the real goods are means to a good life in the sense that they are constitutive components of it. But moral virtue is more than that. It is one of the two operative factors — one of the two efficient causes — of our becoming happy. The other consists in such good fortune as befalls us and confers on us the real goods we cannot attain through free choice on our part and solely through the voluntary exercise of our powers.

In the light of all these considerations, we must finally face the question: Which is primary — the intellectual virtues or moral virtue? As constitutive components of good life, they are on a par as personal perfections. But if, with a view to becoming happy, one had to choose between strengthening one’s moral virtue or increasing one’s knowledge, one’s skills, one’s understanding, and even one’s philosophical wisdom, there is in my mind little doubt as to what the answer should be.

It is better, in the long run and for the sake of a good life, to have strength of character than to have a richly cultivated mind. It is impossible to live without some knowledge and skill, but without moral virtue it is impossible to live well and to become happy. One can have all the intellectual virtues to the highest degree and for lack of moral virtue fail to lead a good life.