Ethical Concepts – Good, Duty and Virtue

Definitions: Good, Duty and Virtue


Good is anything that fulfills a need or satisfies a desire. Good can be more than one. Certain goods such as bodily goods, economic goods, and social goods are means to some higher goods. In a hierarchy of goods, at the top is the highest good, which is the ultimate end of human activity.

To G.E. Moore, Good is indefinable because it is a simple notion and has no parts. Only that which has parts is definable. In Ethics, the word good is used both as an Adjective and as a Noun.


Duty is the sense of ought or obligation of an individual to satisfy a claim made upon him. To Immanuel Kant, an action has no moral worth unless it is done from a sense of duty. This means actions are right only when they are done for the sake of duty only in so far as they are performed for the sake of their rightness.


Virtue refers to acquired dispositions of mind. It is the habit of controlling and regulating impulses and instincts by reason and realizing the good of the self as a whole.

To sum up, Good, Duty and Virtue are the three concepts that have bearing on the moral life of an individual.

Concept of Good

The word ‘Good’ is derived from the German word ‘Gut’. It means anything valuable, useful or serviceable for some end or purpose, therefore desirable. As the term ‘good’ is too wide signifying anything that is desirable, one may use the expression ‘morally good’ to signify moral qualities. Hence, in ethics the word ‘good’ is used to express moral qualities.

‘Good’ is used both as an adjective and also as a noun

It should be stated in this connection that the word ‘good’ is used both as an adjective and also as a noun. Thus when one speaks of ‘material and immaterial goods’, ‘a relative good’ and ‘the absolute or the highest good’ one evidently uses the word ‘good’ as a noun. Good/ used in this way implies ‘an object of desire or pursuit’, ‘anything that is sought’, e.g., wealth, health, courage etc.

‘Good’ as an end and good as a means

In Ethics, a distinction is drawn between good as an end and good as a means. If, for instance, happiness be good, then wealth and health as means of attaining happiness are also good.

It will be easy now to understand the distinction between a relative good and the absolute or the highest good of man. A ‘relative good’ is a kind of good as a means, i.e., it is an object which is desired, not for itself, but for the sake of an ulterior end or good which, again, may be relative to a still higher end, and so on.

‘Absolute good’ means “the good which is desired for its own sake, and is not subordinate to any ulterior good.’’ In short, it is not the concept of good as a means to a higher good; it is however, the highest good- the ultimate end of human activity.

Q: How do you distinguish between relative good and absolute good? Discuss

Concept of Duties

The word ‘duty’ means what is due, i.e., what one is bound to do, or under an obligation to do. In other words, a duty means what one ought to perform as a moral being.

The term ‘duty’ is sometimes used in a narrower sense to mean simply what is legally binding or obligatory upon an individual.

In Ethics, however, the word ‘duty’ is taken in a wider and higher sense to signify every right act which one ought to perform, whether determinate or indeterminate, whether legally obligatory or not.

Hence, from strictly moral or ethical point of view, an individual can never be said to do more than his duty.

Notion of Duty in Ethics

If taken in a wide sense, the notion of duty is essentially implied in every system of morality and every ethical theory.

Greek Ethics

In Greek Ethics, moral life for the most part is presented as a good to be realised or a type of virtue or excellence to be attained. A man must be courageous, temperate and just, because in no other way can be achieved his good or true happiness. So long as the mode of presenting the moral life prevailed, the element of duty was completely absorbed into, and subordinated to, the thought of good or achievement.


It was only when, in Stoicism, (a school of thought whose famous maxim is ‘Live according to Nature’) this good was conceived to be determined by, and to be realized in, obeying a cosmic law of universal reason that the notion of duty emerged into a new distinctness.

It was when morality came to be regarded mainly in the light of conformity to a law that the notion of duty became prominent. The Stoics asserted that virtue alone is good and man must be virtuous not for the sake of pleasure but for the sake of duty.

Kant – Deontology

Kant says that an action has no moral worth unless it is done from a sense of duty. i.e. in the consciousness of its rightness.

To Kant, nothing is absolutely good in this world or out of it except a good will. A will is good when it is determined by respect for the moral law, or the consciousness of duty.

An act that is done from inclination, say from self-love or even sympathy, is not moral. What a man does from inclination to-day, he may likewise from inclination refuse to do to-morrow.

The commands of duty do not wait upon man’s inclination, or strike a bargain with man, the Imperative of duty in Kant’s terminology, is a Categorical Imperative. The categorical imperative commands categorically, unconditionally, it does not say: Do this if you would be happy or successful or perfect, but: Do it because it is your duty to do it.

Thus, according to Kant, actions are right only when they are done for the sake of duty – only in so far as they are performed for the sake of their rightness. ‘Duty for duty’s sake is the true rule of life-Duty should be performed whatever may happen.

Conflict of Duties

The ‘conflict of duties’ arise when the mind is perplexed as to ‘which duty is to be done’ It is sometimes difficult to resolve such a conflict.

In fact, the various moral principles, such as justice and mercy, benevolence and veracity, may conflict with one another. Duty to the family may conflict with duty to the state, or duty to the church (or religious institutions) or duty to God. This may be called conflict of duties.

It arises from various reasons.

  • It sometimes arises from the influence of passions and inclinations.
  • It arises because one is unable to understand “the precise character of a situation or the true scope and spirit of moral principles’.

Then how to resolve conflict of duties?

As Prof. T.H.Green remarks, “There is no such thing really as a conflict of duties. A man’s duty under any particular set of circumstances is always one, though the conditions of the case may be so complicated and obscure as to make it difficult to decide what the duty really is”.

Rightly understood, a duty is but one under a definite set of circumstances. One should always honestly try to decide questions of duty by reference to concrete circumstances.

Whenever there seems to be a conflict of duties one should fall back upon the great fundamental moral law. The fundamental moral law is ‘Realise the rational self.’ The particular laws are only fragmentary aspects of this fundamental law.

Self-realisation is one’s supreme duty; hence it is in the light of this that one should find out what course one should follow when the rules come into conflict.

What do you understand by Conflict of Duties? How should an individual act in such a case?

Concept of Virtue

The English word ‘virtue’ is derived from Latin Vir, a man or hero. It corresponds to Latin Virtus and Sanskrit Virya, meaning manliness, bravery, power, energy or excellence.

In ethics, ‘virtue’ is used with two different meanings –

  1. A virtue is a quality of character, a general disposition or inclination of the self, to adapt its action to moral law. Virtue refers to the inner character and its excellence.
  2. A virtue is also a habit of action corresponding to the quality of character or disposition.

Regarding the concept of virtue different views have been put forward by different philosophers. They are discussed below –

Socrates Concept of Virtue

To Socrates, ‘Virtue is knowledge’ – If a person fully understands the nature of the good, he could not fail to pursue it. On the other hand, if a person did not fully understand the nature of the good he could not be moral except by accident.

No man is voluntarily bad or involuntarily good’’ “No man voluntarily pursues evil or that which he thinks to be evil. To prefer evil to good is not in human nature…..

Plato’s Concept of Virtue

Like Socrates, Plato also says that ‘Virtue is knowledge’. The individual is wise in whom reason rules over the other impulses of the soul.

A life of reason, which means a life of virtue, is the highest good. Happiness attends such a life, the just man is after all the happy man.

Aristotle’s Concept of Virtue

Aristotle defined virtue as a habit of choice.

Many virtues stand midway between two extreme vices, one of which is an excess and the other a deficiency in the proper trait. The virtue of courage, for example, is the middle position or the “golden mean” between rashness and cowardice, and liberality is the middle position between extravagance and miserliness.

There is a great deal of truth in Aristotle’s view. The essence of Virtue lies in harmony between reason and sensibility. It lies in habit of taking the middle course.

At first sight it appears that the views of Socrates and Plato, ‘Virtue is knowledge’ is opposed to that of the view of Aristotle, ‘Virtue is the habit of choosing and performing right actions.’ But the habit of choosing and performing right actions presupposes knowledge of the good and duties in concrete situations.

Cardinal Virtues

Cardinal Virtues are the fundamental virtues on which the other virtues are based.

Plato’s cardinal virtues- Plato recognised four cardinal virtues. Wisdom, Courage, Temperance and Justice. As the soul is composed of three powers- intellect, feeling and will- so corresponding to these are the virtues of wisdom, temperance and courage.

Wisdom: Wisdom is the Virtue of the rational part of the soul. It is an all-embracing virtue. It is moral insight into the duties in a concrete situation and performing them. It is practical wisdom which is implied in all moral actions. However, in a wide sense, wisdom should include care, foresight, prudence and decisiveness of choice.

Courage: Courage is the virtue of the emotional part of the soul. Courage is the power of resisting the fear of pain and the temptation of pleasure. It is not the mere facing of pain that is virtue, but the doing of what is right in the face of pain. Courage is the special virtue of the fighting class. In a wider sense courage should include both valour and fortitude. Valour is active courage, which forges ahead and braves danger and pain. Fortitude is passive courage which endures inevitable sufferings without wavering. Courage should include perseverence.

Temperance: Temperance is the Virtue which offers resistance to the allurements of pleasure. It is self-restraint or self-control. It denotes the will to choose the higher values and to reject the lower bodily values. Temperance is not merely a negative virtue engaged in repressing the appetites. Temperance does not merely restrain passions and desires, but it takes from reason guidance as to how far these desires should be satisfied. Temperance demands a reasonable moderation or a happy blending of the domination of reason with the other tendencies of human nature. Temperance is supremely a virtue which gives beauty to the moral life.

Justice: Justice is the harmonious functioning of intellect, emotion and desire under the guidance of reason. Wisdom, courage, and temperance are primarily virtues of an individual man. Justice is primarily a virtue of a society. In a good society justice demands that the lame man, however unworthy he is morally or however little he is able to do physically for the common good, should be provided with an artificial leg. Justice is impartiality to all in the face of personal prejudice, preference or self-interest.

It comprehends all social virtues. Justice is the performance of social duties. It should include honesty, fidelity, benevolence, love, courtesy, cheerfulness and good humour. Impartiality precedes benevolence. These are social virtues. All virtues are forms of practical wisdom.

Distinctions between Duties and Virtues

Duties Virtues
Can be codified or formulated Cannot be definitely formulated
Can be legally enforced Cannot be enforced by external authority
Duties are determinate obligations indeterminate obligations

As Prof. John. S. Mackenzie observes, “Sometimes those obligations which are capable of precise definition are called duties ; while that part of good conduct which cannot be so definitely formulated is classed under the head of Virtue- as if the Virtuous man were one who did more than his duty, more than could be reasonably demanded of him.” (Manual of Ethics, p 321).

Similarly, Prof. Samuel Alexander remarks, “The distinctive mark of virtue seems to lie in what is beyond duty : yet every such act must depend on the peculiar circumstances under which it is done, of which we leave the agent to be the judge, and we certainly think it is his duty to do what is best.” (Moral Order and Progress. p-243).

The distinction between duties and Virtues is neither reasonable nor necessary from the moral standpoint. Duties and Virtues are two aspects of the same thing- like the two sides of the same coin. All morally good acts are man’s duties from the ethical point of view. ‘The good’ and ‘the obligatory’ are co-extensive.


From the above discussion, it is clear that though different scholars have given different definitions of the moral concepts of Good, Duty and Virtue, one has to admit that these moral concepts are meaningless without reference to each other.

They, however, imply each other. Being ‘morally good’ implies a persons ‘obligation or duties’. To say a man (or a woman) does his (her) duty implies that he (she) possesses a Virtue. In fact, Good, Duty and Virtue are co-extensive.