Note by A Milnes to As A Playwright a chapter of The Life Of Dryden

Johnson here makes a very clear distinction between virtue and wisdom, a distinction which he expresses in very peculiar terms. The dispute whether these two are identical or distinct is as old as ethical philosophy. Sokrates, in proclaiming that virtue can be taught, united them at one end; the modern Utilitarians, by making only those actions morally right which stand the test of practical wisdom, have united them at the other end. The chief difficulty which these last have to contend with is that our language is strong against them, and is always leading them to make a distinction between the two things which they are proving to be identical; e. g.

'not simple inexpediency but injustice';— J. S. Mill, ' Utilitarianism ,' p. 94

a phrase on which Sir J. FitzJames Stephen, in 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,' p. 202, has animadverted in terms of strong censure. Johnson's distinction between 'the good' and 'the bad' is here far from just. It is worded so as to convey an impression that those who condemn a course of action as 'foolish,' i. e. those who guide their morality by considerations of expediency, are only 'the bad.' But quite opposite systems may produce equal actual morality, and a philosophy of expediency has been repeatedly proved consistent with the purest and most exalted character. Cf. also on this head Boswell's Life, 1763, where Johnson defines the morality of an action to be in the motive.

'If I fling half a crown to a beggar with intention to break his head, and he picks it up and buys victuals with it, the physical effect is good; but with respect to me, the action is very wrong.'

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