Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION II: Division of Human Actions into Right, Wrong, and Indifferent. - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3
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SECTION II: Division of Human Actions into Right, Wrong, and Indifferent. - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 3.
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Division of Human Actions into Right, Wrong, and Indifferent.
The qualities of right and wrong in voluntary actions, are universally acknowledged as the foundation of morality; and yet philosophers have been strangely perplexed about them. The hi-story of their various opinions, would signify little but to darken the subject: the reader will have more satisfaction in seeing these qualities explained, without entering at all into controversy.
No person is ignorant of primary and secondary qualities, a distinction much insisted on by philosophers. Primary qualities, such as figure, cohesion, weight, are permanent qualities, that exist in a subject whether perceived or not. Secondary qualities, such as colour, taste, smell, depend on the percipient as much as on the subject, being nothing when not perceived. Beauty and ugliness are qualities of the latter sort: they have no existence but when perceived; and, like all other secondary qualities, they are perceived intuitively; having no dependence on reason nor on judgement, more than colour has, or smell, or taste (a) .
The qualities of right and wrong in voluntary actions, are secondary, like beauty and ugliness and the other secondary qualities mentioned. Like them, they are objects of intuitive perception, and depend not in any degree on reason. No argu-ment is requisite to prove, that to rescue an innocent babe from the jaws of a wolf, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, are right actions: they are perceived to be so intuitively. As little is an argument requisite to prove, that murder, deceit, perjury, are wrong actions: they are perceived to be so intuitively. The Deity has bestow’d on man, different faculties for different purposes. Truth and falsehood are investigated by the reasoning faculty. Beauty and ugliness are objects of a sense, known by the name of taste. Right and wrong are objects of a sense termed the moral sense or conscience. And supposing these qualities to be hid from our perception, in vain would we try to discover them by any argument or process of reasoning: the attempt would be absurd; no less so than an attempt to discover by reasoning colour, or taste, or smell.*
Right and wrong, as mentioned above, are qualities of voluntary actions, and of no other kind. An instinctive action may be agreeable, may be disagreeable; but it cannot properly be denominated either right or wrong. An involuntary act is hurtful to the agent, and disagreeable to the spectator; but it is neither right nor wrong. These qualities also depend in no degree on the event. Thus, if to save my friend from drowning I plunge into a river, the action is right, tho’ I happen to come too late. And if I aim a stroke at a man behind his back, the action is wrong, tho’ I happen not to touch him.
The qualities of right and of agreeable, are inseparable; and so are the qualities of wrong and of disagreeable. A right action is agreeable, not only in the direct perception, but equally so in every subse-quent recollection. And in both circumstances equally, a wrong action is disagreeable.
Right actions are distinguished by the moral sense into two kinds, what ought to be done, and what may be done, or left undone. Wrong actions admit not that distinction: they are all prohibited to be done. To say that an action ought to be done, means that we are tied or obliged to perform; and to say that an action ought not to be done, means that we are restrained from doing it. Tho’ the necessity implied in the being tied or obliged, is not physical, but only what is commonly termed moral; yet we conceive ourselves deprived of liberty or freedom, and necessarily bound to act or to forbear acting, in opposition to every other motive. The necessity here described is termed duty. The moral necessity we are under to forbear harming the innocent, is a proper example: the moral sense declares the restraint to be our duty, which no motive whatever will excuse us for transgressing.
The duty of performing or forbearing any action, implies a right in some person to exact performance of that duty; and accordingly, a duty or obligation necessarily infers a corresponding right. My promise to pay L. 100 to John, confers a right on him to demand performance. The man who commits an injury, violates the right of the person injured; which entitles that person to demand reparation of the wrong.
Duty is twofold; duty to others, and duty to ourselves. With respect to the former, the doing what we ought to do, is termed just: the doing what we ought not to do, and the omitting what we ought to do, are termed unjust. With respect to ourselves, the doing what we ought to do, is termed proper: the doing what we ought not to do, and the omitting what we ought to do, are termed improper. Thus, right, signifying a quality of certain actions, is a genus; of which just and proper are species: wrong, signifying a quality of other actions, is a genus; of which unjust and improper are species.
Right actions left to our free will, to be done or left undone, come next in order. They are, like the former, right when done; but they differ, in not being wrong when left undone. To remit a just debt for the sake of a growing family, to yield a subject in controversy rather than go to law with a neighbour, generously to return good for ill, are examples of this species. They are universally approved as right actions: but as no person has a right or title to oblige us to perform such actions, the leaving them undone is not a wrong: no person is injured by the forbearance. Actions that come under this class, shall be termed arbitrary or discretionary, for want of a more proper designation.
So much for right actions, and their divisions. Wrong actions are of two kinds, criminal and culpable. What are done intentionally to produce mischief, are criminal: rash or unguarded actions that produce mischief without intention, are culpable. The former are restrained by punishment, to be handled in the 5th section; the latter by reparation, to be handled in the 6th.
The divisions of voluntary actions are not yet exhausted. Some there are that, properly speaking, cannot be denominated either right or wrong. Actions done merely for amusement or pastime, without in-tention to produce good or ill, are of that kind; leaping, for example, running, jumping over a stick, throwing a stone to make circles in the water. Such actions are neither approved nor disapproved: they may be termed indifferent.
There is no cause for doubting the existence of the moral sense, more than for doubting the existence of the sense of beauty, of seeing, or of hearing. In fact, the perception of right and wrong as qualities of actions, is no less distinct and clear, than that of beauty, of colour, or of any other quality; and as every perception is an act of sense, the sense of beauty is not with greater certainty evinced from the perception of beauty, than the moral sense is from the perception of right and wrong. We find this sense distributed among individuals in different degrees of perfection: but there perhaps never existed any one above the condition of an idiot, who possessed it not in some degree; and were any man entirely destitute of it, the terms right and wrong would be to him no less unintelligible, than the term colour is to one born blind.
That every individual is endued with a sense of right and wrong, more or less distinct, will probably be granted; but whether there be among men what may be termed a common sense of right and wrong, producing uniformity of opinion as to right and wrong, is not so evident. There is no absurdity in supposing the opinions of men about right and wrong, to be as various as about beauty and deformity. And that the supposition is not destitute of foundation, we are led to suspect, upon discovering that in different countries, and even in the same country at different times, the opinions publicly espoused with regard to right and wrong, are extremely various; that among some nations it was held lawful for a man to sell his children for slaves, and in their infancy to abandon them to wild beasts; that it was held equally lawful to punish children, even capitally, for the crime of their parent; that the murdering an enemy in cold blood, was once a common practice; that human sacrifices, impious no less than immoral according to our notions, were of old universal; that even in later times, it has been held meritorious, to inflict cruel torments for the slightest deviations from the religious creed of the plurality; and that among the most enlightened nations, there are at this day considerable differences with respect to the rules of morality.
These facts tend not to disprove the reality of a common sense in morals: they only prove, that the moral sense has not been equally perfect at all times, nor in all countries. This branch of the history of morality, is reserved for the second part. To give some interim satisfaction, I shall shortly observe, that the savage state is the infancy of man; during which, the more delicate senses lie dormant, leaving nations to the authority of custom, of imitation, and of passion, without any just taste of morals more than of the fine arts. But a nation, like an individual, ripens gradually, and acquires a refined taste in morals as well as in the fine arts: after which we find great uniformity of opinion about the rules of right and wrong; with few exceptions, but what may proceed from imbecillity, or corrupted education. There may be found, it is true, even in the most enlightened ages, men who have singular notions in morality, and in many other subjects; which no more affords an argument against a common sense or standard of right and wrong, than a monster doth against the standard that regulates our external form, or than an exception doth against the truth of a general proposition.
That there is in mankind an uniformity of opinion with respect to right and wrong, is a matter of fact of which the only infallible evidence is observation and experience: and to that evidence I appeal; entering only a caveat, that, for the reason above given, the inquiry be confined to enlightened nations. In the mean time, I take liberty to suggest an argument from analogy, That if there be great uniformity among the different tribes of men in seeing and hearing, in pleasure and pain, in judging of truth and error, the same uniformity ought to be expected with respect to right and wrong. Whatever minute differences there may be to distinguish one person from another, yet in the general principles that constitute our nature, internal and external, there is wonderful uniformity.
This uniformity of sentiment, which may be termed the common sense of mankind with respect to right and wrong, is essential to social beings. Did the moral sentiments of men differ as much as their faces, they would be unfit for society: discord and controversy would be endless, and major vis would be the only rule of right and wrong.
But such uniformity of sentiment, tho’ general, is not altogether universal: men there are, as above mentioned, who differ from the common sense of mankind with respect to various points of morality. What ought to be the conduct of such men? ought they to regulate their conduct by that standard, or by their private conviction? There will be occasion afterward to observe, that we judge of others as we believe they judge of themselves; and that private conviction is the standard for rewards and punishments (a) . But with respect to every controversy about property and pecuniary interest, and, in general, about every civil right and obligation, the common sense of mankind is to every individual the standard, and not private con-viction or conscience; for proof of which take what follows.
We have an innate sense of a common nature, not only in our own species, but in every species of animals. And that our perception holds true in fact, is verified by experience; for there appears a remarkable uniformity in creatures of the same kind, and a difformity, no less remarkable, in creatures of different kinds. It is accordingly a subject of wonder, to find an individual deviating from the common nature of the species, whether in its internal or external structure: a child born with aversion to its mother’s milk, is a wonder, no less than if born without a mouth, or with more than one.
Secondly, This sense dictates, that the common nature of man in particular, is invariable as well as universal; that it will be the same hereafter as it is at present, and as it was in time past; the same among all nations, and in all corners of the earth: nor are we deceived; because, allowing for slight differences occasioned by culture and other accidental circumstances, the fact corresponds to our perception.
Thirdly, We perceive that this common nature is right and perfect, and that it ought to be a model or standard for every human being. Any remarkable deviation from it in the structure of an individual, appears imperfect or irregular; and raises a painful emotion: a monstrous birth, exciting curiosity in a philosopher, fails not at the same time to excite aversion in every spectator.
This sense of perfection in the common nature of man, comprehends every branch of his nature, and particularly the common sense of right and wrong; which accordingly is perceived by all to be perfect, having authority over every individual as the ultimate and unerring standard of morals, even in contradiction to private conviction. Thus, a law in our nature binds us to regulate our conduct by that standard: and its authority is universally acknowledged; as nothing is more ordinary in every dispute about meum et tuum, than an appeal to common sense as the ultimate and unerring standard.
At the same time, as that standard, through infirmity or prejudice, is not conspicuous to every individual; many are misled into erroneous opinions, by mis-taking a false standard for that of nature. And hence a distinction between a right and a wrong sense in morals; a distinction which every one understands, but which, unless for the conviction of a moral standard, would have no meaning.
The final cause of this branch of our Nature is conspicuous. Were there no standard of right and wrong for determining endless controversies about matters of interest, the strong would have recourse to force, the weak to cunning, and society would dissolve. Courts of law could afford no remedy; for without a standard of morals, their decisions would be arbitrary, and of no authority. Happy it is for men to be provided with such a standard: it is necessary in society that our actions be uniform with respect to right and wrong; and in order to uniformity of action, it is necessary that our perceptions of right and wrong be also uniform: to produce such uniformity, a standard of morals is indispensable. Nature has provided us with that standard, which is daily apply’d by courts of law with success (a) .
In reviewing what is said, it must afford great satisfaction, to find morality established upon the solid foundations of intuitive perception; which is a single mental act complete in itself, having no dependence on any antecedent proposition. The most accurate reasoning affords not equal conviction; for every sort of reasoning, as explained in the sketch immediately foregoing, requires not only self-evident truths or axioms to found upon, but employs over and above various propositions to bring out its conclusions. By intuitive perception solely, without reasoning, we acquire knowledge of right and wrong; of what we may do, of what we ought to do, and of what we ought to abstain from: and considering that we have thus greater certainty of moral laws than of any proposition discoverable by reasoning, man may well be deemed a favourite of Heaven, when he is so admirably qualified for doing his duty. The moral sense or conscience is the voice of God within us; constantly admonishing us of our duty, and requiring from us no exercise of our faculties but attention merely. The celebrated Locke ventured what he thought a bold conjecture, That moral duties are susceptible of demonstration: how agreeable to him would have been the discovery, that they are founded upon intuitive perception, still more convincing and authoritative!
By one branch of the moral sense, we are taught what we ought to do, and what we ought not to do; and by another branch, what we may do, or leave undone. But society would be imperfect, if the moral sense stopped here. There is a third branch that makes us accountable for our conduct to our fellow-creatures; and it will be made evident afterward in the third sketch, that we are accountable to our Maker, as well as to our fellow-creatures.
It follows from the standard of right and wrong, that an action is right or wrong, independent of what the agent may think. Thus, when a man, excited by friendship or pity, rescues a heretic from the flames, the action is right, even tho’ he think it wrong, from a conviction that heretics ought to be burnt. But we apply a different standard to the agent: a man is approved and held to be inno-cent in doing what he himself thinks right: he is disapproved and held to be guilty in doing what he himself thinks wrong. Thus, to assassinate an atheist for the sake of religion, is a wrong action; and yet the enthusiast who commits that wrong, may be innocent: and one is guilty, who against conscience eats meat in Lent, tho’ the action is not wrong. In short, an action is perceived to be right or wrong, independent of the actor’s own opinion: but he is approved or disapproved, held to be innocent or guilty, according to his own opinion.
[(a) ]Elements of Criticism, vol. 1. p. 207. edit. 5.
[* ]Every perception must proceed from some faculty or power of perception, termed sense. The moral sense, by which we perceive the qualities of right and wrong, may be considered either as a branch of the sense of seeing, by which we perceive the actions to which these qualities belong, or as a sense distinct from all others. The senses by which objects are perceived, are not separated from each other by distinct boundaries: the sorting or classing them, seems to depend more on taste and fancy, than on nature. I have followed the plan laid down by former writers; which is, to consider the moral sense as a sense distinct from others, because it is the easiest and clearest manner of conceiving it.
[(a) ]Sect. 5.
[(a) ]See Elements of Criticism, vol. 2. p. 490. edit. 5. [[Note added in 2nd edition.]]