Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION VII: Final Causes of the foregoing Laws of Nature. - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 3
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SECTION VII: Final Causes of the foregoing Laws of Nature. - 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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Final Causes of the foregoing Laws of Nature.
Several final causes have been already mentioned, which could not conveni-ently be reserved for the present section, being necessary for explaining the subjects to which they relate; the final cause for instance of erecting a standard of morals upon the common sense of mankind. I proceed now to what have not been mentioned, or but slightly mentioned.
The final cause that presents itself first to view, respects man considered as an accountable being. The sense of being accountable, is one of our most vigilant guards against the silent attacks of vice. When a temptation moves me it immediately occurs, What will the world say? I imagine my friends expostulating, my enemies reviling—it would be in vain to dissemble—my spirits sink—the temptation vanishes. 2dly, Praise and blame, especially from those we regard, are strong incentives to virtue: but if we were not accountable for our conduct, praise and blame would seldom be well directed; for how shall a man’s intentions be known, without calling him to account? And praise or blame, frequently ill-directed, would lose their influence. 3dly, This branch of our nature, is the corner-stone of the criminal law. Did not a man think himself accountable to all the world, and to his judge in a peculiar manner, it would be natural for him to think, that the justest sentence pronounced against him, is oppression, not justice. 4thly, It promotes society. If we were not accountable beings, those connected by blood, or by country, would be no less shy and reserved, than if they were utter strangers to each other.
The final cause that next occurs, being simple and obvious, is mentioned only that it may not seem to have been overlooked. All right actions are agreeable, all wrong actions, disagreeable. This is a wise appointment of Providence. We meet with so many temptations against duty, that it is not always easy to persevere in the right path: would we persevere, were duty disagreeable? And were acts of pure benevolence disagreeable, they would be rare, however worthy of praise.
Another final cause respects duty, in contradistinction to pure benevolence. All the moral laws are founded on intuitive perception; and are so simple and plain, as to be perfectly apprehended by the most ignorant. Were they in any degree complex or obscure, they would be perverted by selfishness and prejudice. No conviction inferior to what is afforded by intuitive perception, could produce in mankind a common sense in moral duties. Reason would afford no general conviction; because that faculty is distributed in portions so unequal, as to bar all hopes from it of uniformity either in practice or in opinion. We are taught beside by woful experience, that reason even the most convincing, has no commanding influence over the greater part of men. Reason, it is true, aided by experience, supports morality; by convincing us, that we cannot be happy if we abandon duty for any other interest. But conviction seldom weighs much against imperious passion; to control which the vigorous and commanding principle of duty is requisite, directed by the shining light of intuition.
A proposition laid down above, appears a sort of mystery in the moral system, That tho’ evidently all moral duties are contrived for promoting the general good, yet that a choice is not permitted among different goods, or between good and ill; but that we are strictly tied down to perform or forbear certain particular acts, without regard to consequences; or, in other words, that we must not do wrong, whatever good it may produce. The final cause I am about to unfold, will clear this mystery, and set the beauty of the moral system in a conspicuous light. I begin with observing, that as the general good of mankind, or even of the society we live in, results from many and various circumstances intricately combined; it is far above the capacity of man, to judge in every instance what particular action will tend the most to that end. The authorising therefore a man to trace out his duty by weighing endless circumstances good and ill, would open a wide door to partiality and passion, and often lead him unwittingly to prefer the preponderating ill, under a false appearance of being the greater good. At that rate, the opinions of men about right and wrong, would be as various as their faces; which, as observed above, would totally unhinge society. It is better ordered by Providence even for the general good, that, avoiding complex and obscure objects, we are di-rected by the moral sense to perform certain plain and simple acts, which admit no ambiguity.
In the next place, To permit ill in order to produce greater good, may suit a being of universal benevolence; but is repugnant to the nature of man, composed of selfish and benevolent principles. We have seen above, that the true moral balance depends on a subordination of self-love to duty, and of discretionary benevolence to self-love; and accordingly every man is sensible of injustice when he is hurt in order to benefit another. Were it a rule in society, That a greater good to any other would make it an act of justice to deprive me of my life, of my reputation, or of my property, I should renounce the society of men, and associate with more harmless animals.
Thirdly, The true moral system, that which is display’d above, is not only better suited to the nature of man and to his limited capacity, but contributes more to the general good, which I now proceed to demonstrate. It would be losing time to prove, that one entirely selfish is ill fitted for society; and we have seen (a) , that universal benevolence, were it a duty, would contribute to the general good perhaps less than absolute selfishness. Man is too limited in capacity and in power for universal benevolence. Even the greatest monarch has not power to exercise his benevolence, but within a very narrow sphere; and if so, how unfit would such a duty be for private persons, who have very little power? Serving only to distress them by inability of performance, they would endeavour to smother it altogether, and give full scope to selfishness. Man is much better qualified for doing good, by a constitution in which benevolence is duly blended with self-love. Benevolence as a duty, takes place of self-love; a regulation essential to society: benevolence as a virtue, not a duty, gives place to self-love; because as every man has more power, knowledge, and opportunity, to promote his own good than that of others, a greater quantity of good is produced, than if benevolence were our only principle of action. This holds, even supposing no harm done to any per-son: much more would it hold, were we permitted to hurt some, in order to produce more good to others.
The foregoing final causes respect morality in general. We now proceed to particulars; and the first and most important is the law of restraint. Man is evidently framed for society: and as there can be no society among creatures who prey upon each other, it was necessary to provide against mutual injuries; which is effectually done by this law. Its necessity with respect to personal security is self-evident; and with respect to property, its necessity will appear from what follows. In the nature of every man there is a propensity to hoard or store up things useful to himself and family. But this natural propensity would be rendered ineffectual, were he not secured in the possession of what he thus stores up; for no man will toil to accumulate what he cannot securely possess. This security is afforded by the moral sense, which dictates, that the first occupant of goods provided by nature for the subsistence of man, ought to be protected in the possession, and that such goods ought to be inviolably his pro-perty. Thus, by the great law of restraint, men have a protection for their goods, as well as for their persons; and are no less secure in society, than if they were separated from each other by impregnable walls.
Several other duties are little less essential than that of restraint, to the existence of society. Mutual trust and confidence, without which society would be an uncomfortable state, enter into the character of the human species; to which the duties of veracity and fidelity correspond. The final cause of these corresponding duties is obvious: the latter would be of no use in society without the former; and the former, without the latter, would be hurtful by laying men open to fraud and deceit.
With respect to veracity in particular, man is so constituted, that he must be indebted to information for the knowledge of most things that benefit or hurt him; and if he could not depend upon information, society would be very little beneficial. Further, it is wisely ordered, that we should be bound by the moral sense to speak truth, even where we perceive no harm in transgressing that duty; because it is sufficient that harm may ensue, tho’ not foreseen. At the same time, falsehood always does mischief: it may happen not to injure us externally in our reputation, or in our goods; but it never fails to injure us internally: the sweetest and most refined pleasure of society, is a candid intercourse of sentiments, of opinions, of desires, and wishes; and it would be poisonous to indulge any falsehood in such intercourse.
Because man is the weakest of all animals in a state of separation, and the very strongest in society by mutual aid and support; covenants and promises, which greatly contribute to these, are made binding by the moral sense.
The final cause of the law of propriety, which enforces the duty we owe to ourselves, comes next in order. In discoursing upon those laws of nature which concern society, there is no occasion to mention any self-duty but what relates to society; of which kind are prudence, temperance, industry, firmness of mind. And that such qualities should be made our duty, is wisely ordered in a double respect; first, as qualifying us to act a proper part in society; and next, as intitling us to good-will from others. It is the interest, no doubt, of every man, to suit his behaviour to the dignity of his nature, and to the station allotted him by Providence; for such rational conduct contributes to happiness, by preserving health, procuring plenty, gaining the esteem of others, and, which of all is the greatest blessing, by gaining a justly-founded self-esteem. But here interest solely is not relied on: the powerful authority of duty is added, that in a matter of the utmost importance to ourselves, and of some importance to the society we live in, our conduct may be regular and steady. These duties tend not only to render a man happy in himself; but also, by procuring the good-will and esteem of others, to command their aid and assistance in time of need.
I proceed to the final causes of natural rewards and punishments. It is laid down above, that controversies about property and about other matters of interest, must be adjusted by the standard of right and wrong. But to bring rewards and punishments under the same standard, with-out regard to private conscience, would be a plan unworthy of our Maker. It is clear, that to reward one who is not conscious of merit, or to punish one who is not conscious of demerit, cannot answer any good end; and in particular, cannot tend either to improvement or to reformation of manners. How much more like the Deity is the plan of nature, which rewards no man who is not conscious that he merits reward, and punishes no man who is not conscious that he merits punishment! By that plan, and by that only, rewards and punishments accomplish every good end, a final cause most illustrious!
The rewards and punishments that attend the primary and secondary virtues, are finely contrived for supporting the distinction between them set forth above. Punishment must be confined to the transgression of primary virtues, it being the intention of nature that secondary virtues be entirely free. On the other hand, secondary virtues are more highly rewarded than primary: generosity, for example, makes a greater figure than justice; and magnanimity, heroism, undaunted cou-rage, a still greater figure. One would imagine at first view, that the primary virtues, being more essential, should be intitled to the first place in our esteem, and be more amply rewarded than the secondary; and yet in elevating the latter above the former, peculiar wisdom and foresight are conspicuous. Punishment is appropriated to enforce primary virtues; and if these virtues were also attended with the highest rewards, secondary virtues, degraded to a lower rank, would be deprived of that enthusiastic admiration which is their chief support: self-interest would universally prevail over benevolence; and would banish those numberless favours we receive from each other in society, which are beneficial in point of interest, and still more so by generating affection and friendship.
In our progress through final causes, we come at last to reparation, one of the principles destined by Providence for redressing wrongs committed, and for preventing reiteration. The final cause of this principle where the mischief arises from intention, is clear: for to protect individuals in society, it is not sufficient that the delinquent be punished; it is necessary over and above, that the mischief be repaired.
Secondly, Where the act is wrong or unjust, tho’ not understood by the author to be so, it is wisely ordered that reparation should follow; which will thus appear. Considering the fallibility of man, it would be too severe never to give any allowance for error. On the other hand, to make it a law in our nature, never to take advantage of error, would be giving too much indulgence to indolence and remission of mind, tending to make us neglect the improvement of our rational faculties. Our nature is so happily framed, as to avoid these extremes by distinguishing between gain and loss. No man is conscious of wrong, when he takes advantage of an error committed by another to save himself from loss: if there must be a loss, common sense dictates, that it ought to rest upon the person who has erred, however innocently, rather than upon the person who has not erred. Thus, in a competition among creditors about the estate of their bankrupt debtor, every one is at liberty to avail himself of an er-ror committed by his competitor, in order to recover payment. But in lucro captando, the moral sense teacheth a different lesson; which is, that no man ought to lay hold of another’s error to make gain by it. Thus, an heir finding a rough diamond in the repositories of his ancestor, gives it away, mistaking it for a common pebble: the purchaser is in conscience and equity bound to restore, or to pay a just price.
Thirdly, The following considerations respecting the precaution that is necessary in acting, unfold a final cause, no less beautiful than that last mentioned. Society could not subsist in any tolerable manner, were full scope given to rashness and negligence, and to every action that strictly speaking is not criminal; whence it is a maxim founded no less upon utility than upon justice, That men in society ought to be extremely circumspect, as to every action that may possibly do harm. On the other hand, it is also a maxim, That as the prosperity and happiness of man depend on action, activity ought to be encouraged, instead of being discouraged by dread of consequences. These maxims, seemingly in opposition, have natural limits that prevent their encroaching one upon the other. There is a certain degree of attention and circumspection that men generally bestow upon affairs, proportioned to their importance: if that degree were not sufficient to defend against a claim of reparation, individuals would be too much cramped in action; which would be a great discouragement to activity: if a less degree were sufficient, there would be too great scope for rash or remiss conduct; which would prove the bane of society. These limits, which evidently tend to the good of society, are adjusted by the moral sense; which dictates, as laid down in the section of Reparation, that the man who acts with foresight of the probability of mischief, or acts rashly and uncautiously without such foresight, ought to be liable for consequences; but that the man who acts cautiously, without foreseeing or suspecting any mischief, ought not to be liable for consequences.
In the same section it is laid down, that the moral sense requires from every man, not his own degree of vigilance and at-tention, which may be very small, but that which belongs to the common nature of the species. The final cause of that regulation will appear upon considering, that were reparation to depend upon personal circumstances, there would be a necessity of enquiring into the character of individuals, their education, their manner of living, and the extent of their understanding; which would render judges arbitrary, and such law-suits inextricable. But by assuming the common nature of the species as a standard, by which every man in conscience judges of his own actions, law-suits about reparation are rendered easy and expeditious.
[(a) ]Sect. 4.