Published Humanitas, Volume XXIX, Nos. 1 and 2, 2016
“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


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.

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 rightness 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.

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