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CHAPTER VI: General rules of conduct prescribed by reason. Of the nature and first foundations of obligation. - Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui, The Principles of Natural and Politic Law 
The Principles of Natural and Politic Law, trans. Thomas Nugent, ed. and with an Introduction by Peter Korkman (Indianpolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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General rules of conduct prescribed by reason. Of the nature and first foundations of obligation.
Reason gives us several rules of conduct.I. It is already a great point gained, to have discovered the primitive rule of human actions, and to know this faithful guide, which is to direct the steps of man, and whose directions and counsels he may follow with an intire confidence. But let us not stop here; and since experience informs us that we are frequently mistaken in our judgments concerning good and evil, and that these erroneous judgments throw us into most dangerous irregularities, let us consult therefore our<53> guide, and learn which are the characters of real good and evil, in order to know in what true felicity consists, and what road we are to take in order to attain it.
First rule. To make a right distinction of good and evil.II. Though the general notion of good and evil be fixed in itself, and invariable, still there are various sorts of particular goods and evils, or of things that pass for such in the minds of men.
1. The first counsel therefore that reason gives us, is to examine well into the nature of good and evil, and to observe carefully their several differences, in order to set upon each thing its proper value.1
This distinction is easily made. A very slight attention to what we continually experience, informs us, that man being composed of body and soul, there are consequently two sorts of goods and evils, spiritual and corporeal. The first are those that proceed only from our thoughts; the second arise from the impressions of external objects on our senses. Thus, the sensible pleasure resulting from the discovery of an important truth; or the self-approbation arising from a consciousness of having discharged our duty, &c. are goods purely spiritual: as the chagrin of a geometrician for being unable to find out a demonstration; or the remorse a person feels for having committed a bad action, &c. are mere spiritual pains. With regard to corporeal goods and evils, they are sufficiently known; on one side, they are health, strength, beauty; on the other, sickness, weakness, pain, &c. These two sorts of goods and evils are interesting to man, and cannot be reckoned indifferent, by reason that man being com-<54>posed of body and soul, it is plain his perfection and happiness depend on the good state of these two parts.
2. We likewise observe, that appearances frequently deceive us, and what at first sight carries with it the face of good, proves to be a real evil, whilst an apparent evil oftentimes conceals an extraordinary good. We should therefore make a distinction between real goods and evils, and those that are false and apparent. Or, which amounts to pretty near the same thing, there is sometimes a pure good and a pure evil, and sometimes there is a mixture of both, which does not obstruct our discerning what part it is that prevails, and whether the good or evil be predominant.
3. A third difference regards their duration. In this respect goods and evils have not all the same nature; some are solid and durable, others transitory and inconstant. Whereto we may add, that there are goods and evils of which we are masters, as it were, and which depend in such a manner on ourselves, that we are able to fix the one, in order to have a constant enjoyment of them, and to shun or get rid of the others. But they are not all of this kind; some goods there are that escape our most eager pursuits, whilst some evils overtake us, notwithstanding our most sollicitous efforts to avoid them.
4. There are at present goods and evils, which we actually feel; and future goods and evils, which are the objects of our hopes or fears.
5. There are particular goods and evils, which affect only some individuals; and others that are<55> common and universal, of which all the members of the society partake. The good of the whole is the real good; that of one of the parts, opposite to the good of the whole, is only an apparent good, and consequently a real evil.
6. From all these remarks we may in fine conclude, that goods and evils not being all of the same species, there are consequently some differences amongst them, and that compared together, we find there are some goods more excellent than others, and evils more or less incommodious. It happens likewise, that a good compared with an evil, may be either equal or greater, or lesser; from whence several differences or gradations arise, that are worthy of special notice.
These particulars are sufficient to shew the utility of the principal rule we have given, and how essential it is to our happiness to make a just distinction of goods and evils. But this is not the only counsel that reason gives us, we are going to point out some others that are not of less importance.
Second rule. True happiness cannot consist in things that are inconsistent with the nature and state of man.III. 2. True happiness cannot consist in things that are inconsistent with the nature and state of man. This is another principle, which naturally flows from the very notion of good and evil. For whatsoever is inconsistent with the nature of a being, tends for this very reason to degrade or destroy it, to corrupt or alter its constitution; which being directly opposite to the preservation, perfection, and good of this being, subverts the foundation of its felicity. Wherefore reason being the noblest part of man, and constituting his prin-<56>cipal essence, whatever is inconsistent with reason, cannot form his happiness. To which I add, that whatever is incompatible with the state of man, cannot contribute to his felicity; and this is a point as clear as evidence can make it. Every being, that by its constitution has essential relations to other beings, which it cannot shake off, ought not to be considered merely as to itself, but as constituting a part of the whole to which it is related. And it is sufficiently manifest, that it is on its situation in regard to the beings that surround it, and on the relations of agreement or opposition it has with them, that its good or bad state, its happiness or misery, must in great measure depend.
Third rule. To compare the present and the future together.IV. 3. In order to procure for ourselves a solid happiness, it is not sufficient to be attentive to the present good and evil, we must likewise examine their natural consequences; to the end, that comparing the present with the future, and balancing one with the other, we must know beforehand what may be the natural result.
Fourth rule.4. It is therefore contrary to reason, to pursue a good that must certainly be attended with a more considerable evil.*
Fifth rule.5. But on the contrary, nothing is more reasonable than to resolve to bear with an evil, from whence a greater good must certainly arise.
The truth and importance of these maxims are self-obvious. Good and evil being two opposites,<57> the effect of one destroys that of the other; that is to say, the possession of a good, attended with a greater evil, renders us really unhappy; and on the contrary, a slight evil, which procures us a more considerable good, does not hinder us from being happy. Wherefore, every thing well considered, the first ought to be avoided as a real evil, and the second should be courted as a real good.
The nature of human things requires us to be attentive to these principles. Were each of our actions restrained in such a manner, and limited within itself, as not to be attended with any consequence, we should not be so often mistaken in our choice, but should be almost sure of grasping the good. But informed as we are by experience, that things have frequently very different effects from what they seemed to promise, insomuch that the most pleasing objects are attended with bitter consequences, and on the contrary a real and solid good is purchased with labour and pains, prudence does not allow us to fix our whole attention on the present. We should extend our views to futurity, and equally weigh and consider the one and the other, in order to pass a solid judgment on them, a judgment sufficient to fix properly our resolutions.
Sixth rule. To give the goods that excel most, the preference.V. 6. For the same reason, we ought to prefer a greater to a lesser good; we ought always to aspire to the noblest goods that suit us, and proportion our desires and pursuits to the nature and merit of each good. This rule is so evident, that it would be losing time to pretend to prove it.<58>
Seventh rule. In some cases possibility only, and by a much stronger reason probability, ought to determine us.VI. 7. It is not necessary to have an intire certainty in regard to considerable goods and evils: Mere possibility, and much more so, probability, are sufficient to induce a reasonable person to deprive himself of some trifling good, and even to suffer some slight evil, with a design of acquiring a far greater good, and avoiding a more troublesome evil.
This rule is a consequence of the foregoing ones; and we may affirm, that the ordinary conduct of men shews they are sensibly convinced of the prudence and necessity thereof. In effect, what is the aim of all this tumult of business into which they hurry themselves? To what end and purpose are all the labours they undertake, all the pains and fatigues they endure, all the perils to which they constantly expose themselves? Their intent is to acquire some advantages which they imagine they do not purchase too dear; though these advantages are neither present, nor so certain, as the sacrifices they must make in order to obtain them.
This is a very rational manner of acting. Reason requires, that in default of certainty we should take up with probability as the rule of our judgment and determination; for probability in that case is the only light and guide we have. And unless it is more eligible to wander in uncertainty, than to follow a guide; unless we are of opinion that our lamp ought to be extinguished when we are deprived of the light of the sun; it is reasonable to be directed by probability, when we are incapable to come at evidence. It is easier to attain our aim by the help<59> of a faint or glimmering light, than by continuing in darkness.*
Eighth rule. To have a relish for true goods.VII. 8. We should be sollicitous to acquire a taste for true goods, insomuch that goods of an excellent nature, and acknowledged as such, should excite our desires, and induce us to make all the efforts necessary for getting them into our possession.
This last rule is a natural consequence of the others, ascertaining their execution and effects. It is not sufficient to have enlightened the mind in respect to the nature of these goods and evils that are capable of rendering us really happy or unhappy; we should likewise give activity and efficacy to these principles, by forming the will so as to determine itself by taste and habit, pursuant to the counsels of enlightened reason. And let no one think it impossible to change<60> our inclinations, or to reform our tastes. It is with the taste of the mind, as with that of the palate. Experience shews, that we may alter both, so as to find pleasure at length in things that before were disagreeable to us. We begin to do a thing with pain, and by an effort of reason; afterwards we familiarise ourselves to it by degrees; then a frequency of acts renders it easier to us, the repugnance ceases, we view the thing in a different light from what we did before; and use at length makes us love a thing that before was the object of our aversion. Such is the power of habit: it makes us insensibly feel so much ease and satisfaction in what we are acustomed to, that we find it difficult afterwards to abstain from it.
Our mind acquiesces naturally in these maxims; and they ought to influence our conduct.VIII. These are the principal counsels we receive from reason. They are in some measure2 a system of maxims, which drawn from the nature of things, and particularly from the nature and state of man, acquaint us with what is essentially suitable to him, and include the most necessary rules for his perfection and happiness.
These general principles are of such a nature, as to force, as it were, our assent; insomuch that a clear and cool understanding, disengaged from the prejudice and tumult of passions, cannot help acknowledging their truth and prudence. Every one sees how useful it would be to man to have these principles present always in his mind, that by the application and use of them in particular cases, they may insensibly become the uniform and constant rule of his inclinations and conduct.<61>
Maxims, in fact, like these are not mere speculations: they should naturally influence our morals, and be of service to us in practical life. For to what purpose would it be to listen to the advice of reason, unless we intended to follow it? Of what signification are those rules of conduct, which manifestly appear to us good and useful, if we refuse to conform to them? We ourselves are sensible that this light was given us to regulate our steps and motions. If we deviate from these maxims, we inwardly disapprove and condemn ourselves, as we are apt to condemn any other person in a similar case. But if we happen to conform to these maxims, it is a subject of internal satisfaction, and we commend ourselves, as we commend others who have acted after this manner. These sentiments are so very natural, that it is not in our power to think otherwise. We are forced to respect these principles, as a rule agreeable to our nature, and on which our felicity depends.
Of obligation generally considered.IX. This agreeableness sufficiently known implies a necessity of squaring our conduct by it. When we mention necessity, it is plain we do not mean a physical but moral necessity, consisting in the impression made on us by some particular motives, which determine us to act after a certain manner, and do not permit us to act rationally the opposite way.
Finding ourselves in these circumstances, we say we are under an obligation of doing or omitting a certain thing; that is, we are determined to it by solid reasons, and engaged by cogent motives, which, like so many ties, draw our will to that side. It is in this sense a person says he is obliged. For whether<62> we are determined by popular opinion, or whether we are directed by civilians and ethic writers, we find that the one and the other make obligation properly consist in a reason, which being well understood and approved, determines us absolutely to act after a certain manner preferable to another. From whence it follows, that the whole force of this obligation depends on the judgment, by which we approve or condemn a particular manner of acting. For to approve, is acknowledging we ought to do a thing; and to condemn, is owning we ought not to do it. Now ought and to be obliged are synonymous terms.
We have already hinted at the natural analogy between the proper and literal sense of the word obliged, and the figurative signification of this same term. Obligation properly denotes a tie;* a man obliged, is therefore a person who is tied. And as a man bound with cords or chains, cannot move or act with liberty, so it is very near the same case with a person who is obliged; with this difference, that in the first case, it is an external and physical impediment which prevents the effect of one’s natural strength; but in the second it is only a moral tie, that is, the subjection of liberty is produced by reason, which being the primitive rule of man and his faculties, directs and necessarily modifies his operations in a manner suitable to the end it proposed.
We may therefore define obligation, considered in general and in its first origin, a restriction of natural liberty, produced by reason; inasmuch as the counsels which reason gives us, are so many motives, that determine man to act after a certain manner preferable to another.<63>
X. Such is the nature of primitive and original obligation. From thence it follows,Obligation may be more or less strong. that this obligation may be more or less strong, more or less rigorous; according as the reasons that establish it have more or less weight, and consequently as the motives from thence resulting have more or less impression on the will. For manifest it is, that the more these motives are cogent and efficacious, the more the necessity of conforming our actions to them becomes strong and indispensable.
Dr. Clark’s opinion on the nature and origin of obligation.XI. I am not ignorant, that this explication of the nature and origin of obligation is far from being adopted by all civilians and ethic writers. Some pretend, †that the natural fitness or unfitness which we acknowledge in certain actions, is the true and original foundation of all obligation; thatvirtue has an intrinsic beauty which renders it amiable of itself, and that vice on the contrary is attended with an intrinsic deformity, which ought to make us detest it, and this antecedent to and independent of the good and evil, of the rewards and punishments which may arise from the practice of either.
But this opinion, methinks, can be supported no farther than as it is reduced to that which we have just now explained. For to say that virtue has of itself a natural beauty, which renders it worthy of our love, and that vice, on the contrary, merits our aversion; is not this acknowledging, in fact, that we have reason to prefer one to the other? Now whatever this reason be, it certainly can never become<64> a motive capable of determining the will, but inasmuch as it presents to us some good to acquire, or tends to make us avoid some evil; in short, only as it is able to contribute to our satisfaction, and to place us in a state of tranquillity and happiness. Thus it is ordained by the very constitution of man, and the nature of human will. For as good, in general, is the object of the will; the only motive capable of setting it in motion, or of determining it to one side preferable to another, is the hope of obtaining this good. To abstract therefore from all interest in respect to man, is depriving him of all motive of acting, that is, reducing him to a state of inaction and indifference. Besides, what idea should we be able to form of the agreeableness or disagreeableness of human actions, of their beauty or turpitude, of their proportion or irregularity, were not all this referred to man himself, and to what his destination, his perfection, his welfare, and, in short, his true felicity requires?
Monsieur Barbeyrac’s opinion concerning this subject.XII. Most civilians are of a different opinion from that of Dr. Clark. “* They establish as a principle of obligation, properly so called, the will of a superior being, on whom dependance is acknowledged. They pretend there is nothing but this will, or the orders of a being of this kind, that can bridle our liberty, or prescribe particular rules to our actions. They add, that neither the relations of proportion nor disagreement which we acknow-<65>ledge in the things themselves, nor the approbation they receive from reason, lay us under an indispensable necessity of following those ideas, as the rules of our conduct. That our reason being in reality nothing else but ourselves, no body, properly speaking, can lay himself under an obligation. From whence they conclude, that the maxims of reason, considered in themselves, and independent of the will of a superior, have nothing obligatory in their nature.”
This manner of explaining the nature, and laying the foundation of obligation, appears to me insufficient, because it does not ascend to the original source, and real principles. True it is, that the will of a superior obliges those who are his dependants; yet this will cannot have such an effect, but inasmuch as it meets with the approbation of our reason. For this purpose, it is not only necessary that the superior’s will should contain nothing in itself opposite to the nature of man; but moreover it ought to be proportioned in such a manner to his constitution and ultimate end, that we cannot help acknowledging it as the rule of our actions; insomuch that there is no neglecting it without falling into a dangerous error; and, on the contrary, the only means of attaining our end is to be directed by it. Otherwise, it is inconceivable how man can voluntarily submit to the orders of a superior, or determine willingly to obey him. Own indeed I must, that, according to the language of civilians, the idea of a superior who commands, must intervene to establish an obligation, such as is commonly considered. But unless we trace things higher, by grounding even the authority of this<66> superior on the approbation he receives from reason, it will produce only an external constraint, very different from obligation, which hath of itself a power of penetrating the will, and moving it by an inward sense; insomuch that man is of his own accord, and without any restraint or violence, inclined to obey.3
Two sorts of obligations; internal and external.XIII. From all these remarks we may conclude, that the differences between the principal systems concerning the nature and origin of obligation, are not so great as they appear at first sight. Were we to make a closer inquiry into these opinions, by ascending to their primitive sources, we should find that these different ideas, reduced to their exact value, far from being opposite, agree very well together, and ought even to concur, in order to form a system connected properly with all its essential parts, in relation to the nature and state of man. This is what we intend more particularly to perform hereafter.* It is proper at present to observe, that there are two sorts of obligations, one internal, and the other external. By internal obligation, I understand that which is produced only by our own reason, considered as the primitive rule of conduct, and in consequence of the good or evil the action in itself contains. By external obligation, we mean that which arises from the will of a being, on whom we allow ourselves dependent, and who commands or prohibits some particular things, under a commination of punishment. Whereto we must add, that these two obligations, far from being opposite to each other, have, on the contrary, a perfect agreement. For as the external obligation<67> is capable of giving a new force to the internal, so the whole force of the external obligation ultimately depends on the internal; and it is from the agreement and concurrence of these two obligations that the highest degree of moral necessity arises, as also4 the strongest tie, or the properest motive to make impression on man, in order to determine him to pursue steadily and never to deviate from some fixt rules of conduct; in a word, by this it is that the most perfect obligation is formed.
[1. ]The original has a “prix” or “price.”
[* ]See the third note of Mons. Barbeyrac on the duties of man and a citizen, book i. chap. i. § 11.
[* ]In the ordinary course of life, we are generally obliged to be determined by probability, for it is not always in our power to attain to a complete evidence. Seneca the philosopher has beautifully established and explained this maxim: “Huic respondebimus, nunquam expectare nos certissimam rerum comprehensionem: quoniam in arduo est veri exploratio: sed eâ ire, qua ducit veri similitudo.Omne hac via procedit officium.Sic serimus, sic navigamus, sic militamus, sic uxores ducimus, sic liberos tollimus; quum omnium horum incertus sit eventus. Ad ea accedimus, de quibus bene sperandum esse credimus. Quis enim polliceatur serenti proventum, naviganti portum, militanti victoriam, marito pudicam uxorem, patri pios liberos? Sequimur quâ ratio, non qua veritas trahit. Exspecta, ut nisi bene cessura non facias, & nisi comperta veritate nihil moveris: relicto omni actu, vita consistit. Dum verisimilia me in hoc aut illud impellant, non verebor beneficium dare ei, quem verisimile erit gratum esse. ” De Benefic. lib. 4. c. 33. [“To this objector we shall answer, that we never should wait for absolute knowledge of the whole case, since the discovery of truth is an arduous task, but should proceed in the direction in which truth appeared to direct us. All our actions proceed in this direction: it is thus that we sow seed, that we sail upon the sea, that we serve in the army, marry, and bring up children. The result of all these actions is uncertain, so we take that course from which we believe that good results may be hoped for. Who can guarantee a harvest to the sower, a harbour to the sailor, victory to the soldier, a modest wife to the husband, dutiful children to the father? We proceed in the way in which reason, not absolute truth, directs us. Wait, do nothing that will not turn out well, form no opinion until you have searched out the truth, and your life will pass in absolute inaction. Since it is only the appearance of truth, not truth itself, which leads me hither or thither, I shall confer benefits upon the man who apparently will be grateful.” Seneca, On Benefits, trans. Aubrey Stewart, Project Gutenberg etext no. 3794 (Oxford, Miss.: Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 2003), http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3794.
[2. ]The original has an unqualified “tout autant.”
[* ]Obligatio a ligando.
[† ]See Dr. Clark on the evidence of natural and revealed religion.
[* ]See the judgment of an anonymous writer, &c. § 15. This is a small work of Mr. Leibnitz, on which Mr. Barbeyrac has made some remarks, and which is inserted in the fifth edition of his translation of the duties of man and a citizen.
[3. ]Compare with DNG I.6 §5 and with DHC I.2 §5 note 2.
[* ]See the second part, chap. vii.
[4. ]The translator adds this “as also,” which obscures Burlamaqui’s meaning, that full moral obligation is the strongest tie, or “the properest motive to make an impression on man.”