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RICHARD PRICE: A REVIEW OF THE PRINCIPAL QUESTIONS IN MORALS - Lewis Amherst Selby-Bigge, British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2 
British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, edited with an Introduction and analytical Index by L.A. Shelby-Bigge in two volumes (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897). Vol. 2.
Part of: British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols.
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RICHARD PRICE: A REVIEW OF THE PRINCIPAL QUESTIONS IN MORALS
[First edition, 1758. Reprinted here from the third edition, 1787.]
Richard Price A Review of the Principal Questions in Morals
584 IN considering the actions of moral agents, we shall find in ourselves three different perceptions concerning them, which are necessary to be carefully distinguished.
The first, is our perception of right and wrong.
The second, is our perception of beauty and deformity.
The third we express, when we say, that actions are of good or ill desert.
Each of these perceptions I propose separately to examine, but particularly the first, with which I shall begin.
It is proper the reader should carefully attend to the state of the question here to be considered; which, as clearly as as I can, I shall lay before him.
The Questionstated concerning theFoundationofMorals,
585 Some actions we all feel ourselves irresistibly determined to approve, and others to disapprove. Some actions we cannot but think right, and others wrong, and of all actions we are led to form some opinion, as either fit to be performed or unfit; or neither fit nor unfit to be performed; that is, indifferent. What the power within us is, which thus determines, is the question to be considered.
A late very distinguished writer, Dr. Hutcheson, deduces our moral ideas from a moral sense; meaning by this sense, a power within us, different from reason, which renders certain actions pleasing and others displeasing to us. As we are so made, that certain impressions on our bodily organs shall excite certain ideas in our minds, and that certain outward forms, when presented to us, shall be the neceessary occasions of pleasure or pain; in like manner, according to Dr. Hutcheson, we are so made, that certain affections and actions of moral agents shall be the necessary occasions of agreeable or disagreeable sensations in us, and procure our love or dislike of them. He has indeed well shewn, that we have a faculty determining us immediately to approve or disapprove actions, abstracted from all views of private advantage; and that the highest pleasures of life depend upon this faculty. Had he proceeded no farther, and intended nothing more by the moral sense, than our moral faculty in general, little room would have been left for any objections: But then he would have meant by it nothing new, and he could not have been considered as the discoverer of it. From the term sense, which he applies to it, from his rejection of all the arguments that have been used to prove it to be an intellectual power, and from the whole of his language on this subject; it is evident, he considered it as the effect of a positive constitution of our minds, or as an implanted and arbitrary principle by which a relish is given us for certain moral objects and forms and aversion to others, similar to the relishes and aversions created by any of our other senses. In other words; our ideas of morality, if this account is right, have the same origin with our ideas of the sensible qualities of bodies, the harmony of sounds1 , or the beauties of painting or sculpture; that is, the mere good pleasure of our Maker adapting the mind and its organs in a particular manner to certain objects. Virtue (as those who embrace this scheme say) is an affair of taste. Moral right and wrong, signify nothing in the objects themselves to which they are applied, any more than agreeable and harsh; sweet and bitter; pleasant and painful; but only certain effects in us. Our perception of right, or moral good, in actions, is that agreeable emotion, or feeling, which certain actions produce in us; and of wrong, or moral evil, the contrary. They are particular modifications of our minds, or impressions which they are made to receive from the contemplation of certain actions, which the contrary actions might have occasioned, had the Author of nature so pleased; and which to suppose to belong to these actions themselves, is as absurd as to ascribe the pleasure or uneasiness, which the observation of a particular form gives us, to the form itself. ‘Tis therefore, by this account, improper to say of an action, that it is right, in much the same sense that it is improper to say of an object of taste, that it is sweet; or of pain, that it is in fire.* * * * * * *
586 As to the schemes which found morality on self-love, on positive laws and compacts, or the Divine will; they must either mean, that moral good and evil are only other words for advantageous and disadvantageous, willed and forbidden. Or they relate to a very different question; that is, not to the question, what is the nature and true account of virtue; but, what is the subject-matter of it.2
587 As far as the former may be the intention of the schemes I have mentioned, they afford little room for controversy. Right and wrong when applied to actions which are commanded or forbidden by the will of God, or that produce good or harm, do not signify merely, that such actions are commanded or forbidden, or that they are useful or hurtful, but a sentiment concerning them and our consequent approbation or disapprobation of the performance of them. Were not this true, it would be palpably absurd in any case to ask, whether it is right to obey a command, or wrong to disobey it; and the propositions, obeying a command is right, or producing happiness is right, would be most trifling, as expressing no more than that obeying a command, is obeying a command, or producing happiness, is producing happiness. Besides; on the supposition, that right and wrong denote only the relations of actions to will and law, or to happiness and misery, there could be no dispute about the faculty that perceives right and wrong, since it must be owned by all, that these relations are objects of the investigations of reason.
Happiness requires something in its own nature, or in ours, to give it influence, and to determine our desire of it and approbation of pursuing it. In like manner; all laws, will, and compacts suppose antecedent right to give them effect; and, instead of being the constituents of right, they owe their whole force and obligation to it.
588 Having premised these observations; the question now returns—What is the power within us that perceives the distinctions of right and wrong?
My answer is. The understanding.
In order to prove this, it is necessary to enter into a particular enquiry into the origin of our ideas in general, and the distinct provinces of the understanding and of sense.
589 Sensation and Reflection have been commonly reckoned the sources of all our ideas: and Mr. Locke has taken no small pains to prove this. How much soever, on the whole, I admire his excellent Essay, I cannot think him sufficiently clear or explicit on this subject. It is hard to determine exactly what he meant by sensation and reflection. If by the former we understand the effects arising from the impressions made on our minds by external objects; and by the latter, the notice the mind takes of its own operations; it will be impossible to derive some of the most important of our ideas from them. This is the explanation Mr. Locke gives of them in the beginning of his Essay. But it seems probable that what he chiefly meant, was, that all our ideas are either derived immediately from these two sources, or ultimately grounded upon ideas so derived; or, in other words, that they furnish us with all the subjects, materials, and occasions of knowledge, comparison, and internal perception. This, however, by no means renders them in any proper sense, the sources of all our ideas: Nor indeed does it appear, notwithstanding all he has said of the operations of the mind about its ideas, that he thought we had any faculty different from sensation and reflection which could give rise to any simple ideas; or that was capable of more than compounding, dividing, abstracting, or enlarging ideas previously in the mind. But be this as it may, what I am going to observe, will, I believe, be found true.
590 The power, I assert, that understands; or the faculty within us that discerns truth, and that compares all the objects of thought, and judges of them, is a spring of new ideas.1
As, perhaps, this has not been enough attended to, and as the question to be discussed, is; whether our moral ideas are derived from the understanding or from a sense; it will be necessary to state distinctly the different natures and provinces of sense and reason.
591 To this purpose we may observe, first, that the power which judges of the perceptions of the senses, and contradicts their decisions; which discovers the nature of the sensible qualities of objects, enquires into their causes, and distinguishes between what is real and what is not real in them, must be a power within us which is superior to sense.
Again, it is plain that one sense cannot judge of the objects of another; the eye, for instance, of harmony, or the ear of colours. The faculty therefore which views and compares the objects of all the senses, cannot be sense. When, for instance, we consider sound and colour together, we observe in them essence, number, identity, diversity, &c. and determine their reality to consist, not in being properties of external substances, but in being modifications of our souls. The power which takes cognizance of all this, and gives rise to these notions, must be a power capable of subjecting all things alike to its inspection, and of acquainting itself with necessary truth and existence.
592 Sense consists in the obtruding of certain impressions upon us, independently of our wills; but it cannot perceive what they are, or whence they are derived. It lies prostrate under its object, and is only a capacity in the soul of having its own state altered by the influence of particular causes. It must therefore remain a stranger to the objects and causes affecting it.
Were not sense and knowledge entirely, we should rest satisfied with sensible impressions, such as light, colours, and sounds, and enquire no farther about them, at least when the impressions are strong and vigorous: Whereas, on the contrary, we necessarily desire some farther acquaintance with them, and can never be satisfied till we have subjected them to the survey of reason.—Sense presents particular forms to the mind; but cannot rise to any general ideas. It is the intellect that examines and compares the presented forms, that rises above individuals to universal and abstract ideas; and thus looks downward upon objects, takes in at one view an infinity of particulars, and is capable of discovering general truths.—Sense sees only the outside of things, reason acquaints itself with their natures.—Sensation is only a mode of feeling in the mind; but knowledge implies an active and vital energy of the mind. Feeling pain, for example, is the effect of sense; but the understanding is employed when pain itself is made an object of the mind's reflexion, or held up before it, in order to discover its nature and causes. Mere sense can perceive nothing in the most exquisite work of art; suppose a plant, or the body of an animal; but what is painted in the eye, or what might be described on paper. It is the intellect that must perceive in it order and proportion; variety and regularity; design, connexion, art, and power; aptitudes, dependencies, correspondencies, and adjustment of parts so as to subserve an end, and compose one perfect whole; 1 things which can never be represented on a sensible organ, and the ideas of which cannot be passively communicated, or stamped on the mind by the operation of external objects.—Sense cannot perceive any of the modes of thinking beings; these can be discovered only by the mind's survey of itself.
593 In a word, it appears that sense and understanding are faculties of the soul totally different: The one being conversant only about particulars; the other about universals: The one not discerning, but suffering; the other not suffering, but discerning; and signifying the soul's Power of surveying and examining all things, in order to judge of them; which Power, perhaps, can hardly be better defined, than by calling it, in Plato's language, the power in the soul to which belongs κατάληΨις τοῡ ὄντος, or the apprehension of Truth1
594 But, in order farther to shew how little a way mere sense (and let me add imagination, a faculty nearly allied to sense) can go, and how far we are dependent on our higher reasonable powers for many of our fundamental ideas; I would instance in the following particulars.
The idea of solidity has been generally reckoned among the ideas we owe to sense; and yet perhaps it would be difficult to prove, that we ever had actual experience of that impenetrability which we include in it, and consider as essential to all bodies. In order to this, we must be sure, that we have, some time or other, made two bodies really touch, and found that they would not penetrate one another: but it is not impossible to account for all the facts we observe, without supposing, in any case, absolute contact between bodies. And though we could make the experiment, yet one experiment, or even a million, could not be a sufficient foundation for the absolute assurance we have that no bodies can penetrate one another. Not to add, that all that would appear to the senses in such experiments, would be the conjunction of two events, not their necessary connexion. Are we then to affirm, that there is no idea of impenetrability; that two atoms of matter, continuing distinct and without the annihilation of either, may occupy the same place; and all the atoms of matter be crowded into the room and bulk of one; and these, for the same reason, into room less and less to infinity, without in the meanwhile making any diminution of the quantity of matter in the universe? This, indeed, might be the consequence, were it certain that all our ideas, on this subject, are derived from sensation; and did nothing further than it acquaints us with, appear to reason. There are many instances in which two material substances apparently run into one another, It is reason, that, from its own perceptions, determines such to be fallacious appearances, and assures us of the universal and strict necessity of the contrary. The same power that perceives two particles to be different, perceives them to be impenetrable; for they are as necessarily the one as the other; it being self-evident, that they cannot occupy the same place without losing all difference.* * * * * * *
595 The next ideas I shall instance in are those of Power and Causation. Some of the ideas already mentioned imply them; but they require our particular notice and attention. Nothing may, at first sight, seem more obvious, than that one way in which they are conveyed to the mind, is, by observing the various changes that happen about us, and our constant experience of the events arising upon such and such applications of external objects to one another: And yet I am well persuaded, that this experience is alone quite incapable of furnishing us with these ideas.
What we observe by our external senses, is properly no more than that one thing follows another1 , or the constant conjunction of certain events; as of the melting of wax, with placing it in the flame of a candle; and, in general, of such and such alterations in the qualities of bodies, with such and such circumstances of their situation. That one thing is the cause of another, or produces it, we never see: Nor is it indeed true, in numberless instances where men commonly think they observe it: And were it in no one instance true; I mean, were there no object that contributed, by its own proper force, to the production of any new event; were the apparent causes of things universally only their occasions or concomitants; (which is nearly the real case, according to some philosophical principles;) yet still we should have the same ideas of cause, and effect, and power. Our certainty that every new event requires some cause, depends no more on experience than our certainty of any other the most obvious subject of intuition. In the idea of every change is included that of its being an effect.
596 The necessity of a cause of whatever events arise is an essential principle, a primary perception of the understanding; nothing being more palpably absurd than the notion of a change which has been derived from nothing, and of which there is no reason to be given; of an existence which has begun, but never was produced; of a body, for instance, that has ceased to move, but has not been stopped; or that has begun to move, without being moved. Nothing can be done to convince a person, who professes to deny this, besides referring him to common sense. If he cannot find there the perception I have mentioned, he is not farther to be argued with, for the subject will not admit of argument; there being nothing clearer than the point itself disputed to be brought to confirm it. And he who will acknowledge that we have such a perception, but will at the same time say that it is to be ascribed to a different power from the understanding, should inform us why the same should not be asserted of all self-evident truth.
597 It should be observed, that I have not said that we have no idea of power, except from the understanding. Activity and self-determination are as essential to spirit, as the contrary are to matter; and therefore inward consciousness gives us the idea of hat particular sort of power which they imply. But the universal source of the idea of power, as we conceive it necessary to the production of all that happens, and of our notions of influence, connection, aptitude, and dependence in general, must be the understanding. Some active or passive powers, some capacity or possibility of receiving changes and producing them, make an essential part of our ideas of all objects: And these powers differ according to the different natures of the objects, and their different relations to one another. What can do nothing; what is fitted to answer no purpose, and has no kind of dependence, aptitude, or power belonging to it, can be nothing real or substantial. Were all things wholly unconnected and loose; and did no one event or object, in any circumstances, imply any thing beyond itself; all the foundations of knowledge would be destroyed. It is, on all hands, confessed, that things appear otherwise to us, and that in numberless instances we are under a necessity of considering them as connected, and of inferring one thing from another. Why should not this be accounted for by a real connexion between the things themselves? Is it possible, for example, any one should think, that there is no sort of real connexion perceiveable by reason, between probity of mind and just actions, or between certain impulses of bodies on one another and an alteration of their motions?
598 Indeed, the whole meaning of accounting for a fact, implies something in the nature of objects and events that includes a connexion between them, or a fitness in certain ways to influence one another. ‘Till we can discover this, we are always conscious of somewhat farther to be known. While we only see one thing constantly attending or following another, without perceiving the real dependence and connexion; (as in the case of gravitation, and the sensations attending certain impressions on our bodily organs) we are necessarily dissatisfied, and feel a state of mind very different from that entire acquiescence, which we experience upon considering Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion, or any other instances and facts, in which we see the necessary connexion and truth.
599 In conformity to these observations we always find, that when we have adequate ideas of the natures and properties of any beings or objects, we at the same time perceive their powers, and can foretel, independently of experience, what they will produce in given circumstances, and what will follow upon such and such applications of them to one another.* * * * * * *
And, had we a perfect insight into the constitution of nature, the laws that govern it, and the motions, texture, and relations of the several bodies that compose it; the whole chain of future events in it would be laid open to us. Experience and observation are only of use, when we are ignorant of the nature of the object, and cannot, in a more perfect, short, and certain way, determine what will be the event in particular cases, and what are the uses of particular objects1 . Instinct is a still lower and more imperfect means of supplying the same defect of knowledge.* * * * * * *
600 Let me add, in the last place, that our abstract ideas seem most properly to belong to the understanding. They are, undoubtedly, essential to all its operations; every act of judgment implying some abstract or universal idea. Were they formed by the mind in the manner generally represented, it seems unavoidable to conceive that it has them at the very time that it is supposed to be employed in forming them. Thus; from any particular idea of a triangle, it is said we can frame the general one; but does not the very reflexion said to be necessary to this, on a greater or lesser triangle, imply, that the general idea is already in the mind? How else should it know how to go to work, or what to reflect on?— That the universality consists in the idea; and not merely in the name as used to signify a number of particulars resembling that which is the immediate object of reflex/on, is plain; because, was the idea to which the name answers and which it recalls into the mind, only a particular one, we could not know to what other ideas to apply it, or what particular objects had the resemblance necessary to bring them within the meaning of the name. A person, in reading over a mathematical demonstration, certainly is conscious that it relates to somewhat else, than just that precise figure presented to him in the diagram. But if he knows not what else, of what use can the demonstration be to him? How is his knowledge enlarged by it? Or how shall he know afterwards to what to apply it?—All that can be pictured in the imagination, as well as all that we take notice of by our senses, is indeed particular. And whenever any general notions are present in the mind, the imagination, at the same time, is commonly engaged in representing to itself some of the particulars comprehended under them. But it would be a very strange inference from hence, that we have none but particular ideas. As well almost might we conclude, that we have no other notion of any thing than of its name, because they are so associated in our minds that we cannot separate them; or of the sun, than as a white, bright circle, such as we see in the heavens, because this image is apt to accompany all our thoughts of it 1
602 It is a capital error, into which those persons run who confound the understanding with the imagination, and deny reality and possibility to every thing the latter cannot conceive, however clear and certain to the former. The powers of the imagination are very narrow; and were the understanding confined to the same limits, nothing could be known, and the very faculty itself would be annihilated.—Nothing is plainer, than that one of these often perceives where the other is blind; is surrounded with light where the other finds all darkness; and, in numberless instances, knows things to exist of which the other can frame no idea. What is more impossible, than for the imagination to represent to itself matter without colour; but thus is it perceived by the understanding, which pronounces, without doubt or hesitation, that colour is not a property of matter. Points, lines, and surfaces, also, as mathematicians consider them, are entirely intellectual objects no notice whereof ever entered the mind by the senses, and which are utterly inconceivable to the imagination. Does it follow from hence, that there are no such things? Are we to believe that there can exist no particles of matter smaller than we can imagine to ourselves, or that there is no other kind or degree of equality, than can be judged of by the eye? This has been maintained; and on the same principles we must go on to say, that the mind itself and its operations are just what they appear to every one's reflexion, and that it is not possible for us to mistake in thinking of what we have formerly done or thought, or what we shall hereafter do or think. But surely, that philosophy cannot be very inviting, which thus explodes all independent truth and reality, resolves knowledge into particular modifications of sense and imagination, and makes these the measures of all things.
603 When I consider these things, I cannot help wondering, that, in enquiring into the origin of our ideas, the understanding, which, though not first in time, is the most important source of our ideas, should have been overlooked. It has, indeed, been always considered as the source of knowledge: But it should have been more attended to, that as the source of knowledge, it is likewise the source of new ideas, and that it cannot be one of these without being the other. The various kinds of agreement and disagreement between our ideas, which Mr. Locke says, it is its office to discover and trace, are so many new simple ideas, obtained by its discernment. Thus; when it considers the two angles made by a right line, standing in any direction on another, and perceives the agreement between them and two right angles; what is this agreement besides their equality? And is not the idea of this equality a new simple idea, acquired by the understanding, wholly different from that of the two angles compared, and denoting self-evident truth?—In much the same manner in other cases, knowledge and intuition suppose somewhat perceived in their objects, denoting simple ideas to which themselves gave rise.—This is true of our ideas of proportion; of our ideas of identity and diversity, existence, connexion, cause and effect, power, possibility and impossibility; and let me add, though prematurely, of our ideas of moral right and wrong. The first concerns quantity; the last actions; the rest all things. They comprehend the most considerable part of what we can desire to know of things, and are the objects of almost all reasonings and disquisitions.1
In short. As bodily sight discovers to us visible objects; so does the understanding, (the eye of the mind, and infinitely more penetrating) discover to us intelligible objects; and thus, in a like sense with bodily vision, becomes the inlet of new ideas.* * * * * * *
604 It is an observation very necessary to be made, before we leave what we are now upon, that the source of ideas on which I have insisted, is different from the power of reasoning, and ought, by no means, to be confounded with it. This consists in investigating certain relations between objects, ideas of which must have been previously in the mind: that is; it supposes us already to have the ideas we want to trace; and therefore cannot give rise to new ideas. No mind can be engaged in investigating it knows not what; or in endeavouring to find out any thing concerning an object, of which it has no conception. When, from the view of objects to which they belong self-evidently, we have gained ideas of proportion, identity, connexion, &c. we employ deduction, or reasoning, to trace these amongst other objects, and ill other instances, where they cannot be perceived immediately.
OftheOriginof ourIdeasof moralRightandWrong.
605 Let us now return to our first enquiry, and apply the foregoing observations to our ideas of right and wrong in particular.
Tis a very necessary previous observation, that our ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas, and must therefore be ascribed to some power of immediate perception in the human mind. He that doubts this, need only try to give definitions of them, which shall amount to more than synonymous expressions. Most of the confusion in which the question concerning the foundation of morals has been involved has proceeded from inattention to this remark. There are, undoubtedly, some actions that are ultimately approved, and for justifying which no reason can be assigned; as there are some ends, which are ultimately desired, and for chusing which no reason can be given. Were not this true, there would be an infinite progression of reasons arid ends, and therefore nothing could be at all approved or desired.
606 Supposing then, that we have a power immediately perceiving right and wrong: the point I am now to endeavour to prove, is, that this power is the Understanding, agreeably to the assertion at the end of the first section. I cannot but flatter myself, that the main obstacle to the acknowledgment of this, has been already removed, by the observations made in the preceding section, to shew that the understanding is a power of immediate perception, which gives rise to new original ideas; nor do I think it possible that there should have been many disputes on this subject had this been properly considered.
But, in order more explicitly and distinctly to evince what I have asserted (in the only way the nature of the question seems capable of) let me,
607 First, Observe, that it implies no absurdity, but evidently may be true. It is undeniable, that many of our ideas are derived from our intuition of truth, or the discernment of the natures of things by the understanding. This therefore may be the source of our moral ideas. It is at least possible, that right and wrong may denote what we understand and know concerning certain objects, in like manner with proportion and disproportion, connexion and repugnancy, contingency and necessity, and the other ideas before-mentioned.—I will add, that nothing has been offered which has any tendency to prove the contrary. All that can appear, from the objections and reasonings of the Author of the Enquiry into the original of our ideas of beauty and virtue, is only, what has been already observed, and what does not in the least affect the point in debate: Namely, that the words right and wrong, fit and unfit, express simple and undeniable ideas. But that the power perceiving them is properly a sense and not reason; that these ideas denote nothing true of actions, nothing in the nature of actions; this, he has left entirely without proof. He appears, indeed, to have taken for granted, that if virtue and vice are immediately perceived, they must be perceptions of an implanted sense. But no conclusion could have been more hasty. For will any one take upon him to say, that all powers of immediate perception must be arbitrary and implanted; or that there can be no simple ideas denoting any thing besides the qualities and passions of the mind?—In short. Whatever some writers have said to the contrary, it is certainly a point not yet decided, that virtue is wholly factitious, and to be felt not understood.
608 As there are some propositions, which, when attended to, necessarily determine all minds to believe them: And as (which will be shewn hereafter) there are some ends, whose natures are such, that, when perceived, all beings immediately and necessarily desire them: So is it very credible, that, in like manner, there are some actions whose natures are such, that, when observed, all rational beings immediately and necessarily approve them.
609 I do not at all care what follows from Mr. Hume's assertion, that all our ideas are either impressions, or copies of impressions1 ; or from Mr. Locke's assertion that they are all deducible from sensation and reflexion.—The first of these assertions is, I think, destitute of all proof; supposes, when applied in this as welt as many other cases, the point in question; and, when pursued to its consequences, ends in the destruction of all truth and the subversion of our intellectual faculties.—The other wants much explication to render it consistent with any tolerable account of the original of our moral ideas: Nor does there seem to be any thing necessary to convince a person, that all our ideas are not deducible from sensation and reflexion, except taken in a very large and comprehensive sense, besides considering how Mr. Locke derives from them our moral ideas. He places them among our ideas of relations, and represents rectitude as signifying the conformity of actions to some rules or laws; which rules or laws, he says, are either the will of God, the decrees of the magistrate, or the fashion of the country: From whence it follows, that it is an absurdity to apply rectitude to rules and laws themselves; to suppose the divine will to be directed by it; or to consider it as itself a rule and law. But, it is undoubted, that this great man would have detested these consequences; and, indeed, it is sufficiently evident, that he was strangely embarrassed in his notions on this, as well as some other subjects. But,
610 Secondly, I know of no better way of determining this point, than by referring those who doubt about it to common sense, and putting them upon considering the nature of their own perceptions.—Could we suppose a person, who, when he perceived an external object, was at a loss to determine whether he perceived it by means of his organs of sight or touch; what better method could be taken to satisfy him? There is no possibility of doubting in any such cases. And it seems not more difficult to determine in the present case.
Were the question; what that perception is, which we have of number, diversity, causation or proportion; and whether our ideas of them signify truth and reality perceived by the understanding, or impressions made by the objects to which we ascribe them, on our mindsi were, I say, this the question; would it not be sufficient to appeal to every man's consciousness?— These perceptions seem to me to have no greater pretence to be denominated perceptions of the understanding, than right and wrong.
611 It is true, some impressions of pleasure or pain, satisfaction or disgust, generally attend our perceptions of virtue and vice. But these are merely their effects and concomitants, and not the perceptions themselves, which ought no more to be con founded with them, than a particular truth (like that for which Pythagoras offered a Hecatomb) ought to be confounded with the pleasure that may attend the discovery of it. Some emotion or other accompanies, perhaps, all our perceptions; but more remarkably our perceptions of right and wrong. And this, as will be again observed in the next chapter, is what has led to the mistake of making them to signify nothing but impressions, which error some have extended to all objects of knowledge; and thus have been led into an extravagant and monstrous scepticism.
612 But to return; let any one compare the ideas arising from our powers of sensation, with those arising from our intuition of the natures of things, and enquire which of them his ideas of right and wrong most resemble. On the issue of such a comparison may we safely rest this question. It is scarcely conceivable that any one can impartially attend to the nature of his own perceptions, and determine that, when he thinks gratitude or beneficence to be right, he perceives nothing true of them, and understands nothing, but only receives an impression from a sense. Was it possible for a person to question, whether his idea of equality was gained from sense or intelligence; he might soon be convinced, by considering, whether he is not sure, that certain lines or figures are really equal, and that their equality must be perceived by all minds, as soon as the objects themselves are perceived.—In the same manner may we satisfy ourselves concerning the origin of the idea of right: For have we not a like consciousness, that we discern the one, as well as the other, in certain objects? Upon what possible grounds can we pronounce the one to be sense, and the other reason? Would not a Being purely intelligent, having happiness within his reach, approve of securing it for himself? Would not he think this right; and would it not be right? When we contemplate the happiness of a species, or of a world, and pronounce concerning the actions of reasonable beings which promote it, that they are right; is this judging erroneously? Or is it no determination of judgment at all, but a species of mental taste? —Are not such actions really right? Or is every apprehension of rectitude in them false and delusive, just as the like apprehension is concerning the effects of external and internal sensation, when taken to belong to the causes producing them?
613 It seems beyond contradiction certain, that every being must desire happiness for himself; and can those natures of things, from which the desire of happiness and aversion to misery necessarily arise, leave, at the same time, a rational nature totally indifferent as to any approbation of actions procuring the one, or preventing the other? Is there nothing that any understanding can perceive to be amiss in a creature's bringing upon himself, or others, calamities and ruin? Is there nothing truly wrong in the absolute and eternal misery of an innocent being?—‘It appears wrong to us.’—And what reason can you have for doubting, whether it appears what it is?— Should a being, after being flattered with hopes of bliss, and having his expectations raised by encouragements and promises, find himself, without reason, plunged into irretrievable torments; would he not justly complain? Would he want a sense to cause the idea of wrong to arise in his mind?—Can goodness, gratitude, and veracity, appear to any mind under the same characters, with cruelty, ingratitude, and treachery?—Darkness may as soon appear to be light.
614 It would, I doubt, be to little purpose to plead further here, the natural and universal apprehensions of mankind, that our ideas of right and wrong belong to the understanding, and denote real characters of actions; because it will be easy to reply, that they have a like opinion of the sensible qualities of bodies; and that nothing is more common than for men to mistake their own sensations for the properties of the objects producing them, or to apply to the object itself, what they find always accompanying it, whenever observed. Let it therefore be observed,
615 Thirdly, That if right and wrong denote effects of sensation, it must imply the greatest absurdity to suppose them applicable to actions: That is; the ideas of right and wrong and of action, must in this case be incompatible; as much so, as the idea of pleasure and a regular form, or of pain and the collisions of bodies.—All sensations, as such, are modes of consciousness, or feelings of a sentient being, which must be of a nature totally different from the particular causes which produce them. A coloured body, if we speak accurately, is the same absurdity with a square sound. We need no experiments to prove that heat, cold, colours, tastes, &c. are not real qualities of bodies; because the ideas of matter and of these qualities are incompatible.—But is there indeed any such incompatibility between actions and right? Or any such absurdity in affirming the one of the other?—Are the ideas of them as different as the idea of a sensation, and its cause?
616 On the contrary; the more we enquire, the more indisputable, I imagine, it will appear to us, that we express necessary truth, when we say of some actions, they are right; and of others, they are wrong. Some of the most careful enquirers think thus, and find it out of their power not to be persuaded that these are real distinctions belonging to the natures of actions. Can it be so difficult, to distinguish between the ideas of sensibility and reason; between the intuitions of truth and the passions of the mind? Is that a scheme of morals we can be very fond of, which makes our perceptions of moral good and evil in actions and manners, to be all vision and fancy? Who can help seeing, that right and wrong are as absolutely unintelligible, and void of sense and meaning, when supposed to signify nothing true of actions, no essential, inherent difference between them, as the perceptions of the external and internal senses are, when thought to be properties of the objects that produce them?
617 How strange would it be to maintain, that there is no possibility of mistaking with respect to right and wrong1 ; that the apprehensions of all beings, on this subject, are alike just, since all sensation must be alike true sensation?—Is there a greater absurdity, than to suppose, that the moral rectitude of an action is nothing absolute and unvarying; but capable, like all the modifications of pleasure and pain, of being intended and remitted, of increasing and lessening, of rising and sinking with the force and liveliness of our feelings? Would it be less ridiculous to suppose this of the relations between given quantities, of the equality of numbers, or the figure of bodies?
618 In the last place; let it be considered, that all actions, undoubtedly, have a nature. That is, some character certainly belongs to them, and somewhat there is to be truly affirmed of them. This may be, that some of them are right, others wrong. But if this is not allowed; if no actions are, in themselves, either right or wrong, or any thing of a moral and obligatory nature, which can be an object to the understanding; it follows, that, in themselves, they are all indifferent. This is what is essentially true of them, and this is what all understandings, that perceive right, must perceive them to be. But are we not conscious, that we perceive the contrary? And have we not as much reason to believe the contrary, as to believe or trust at all our own discernment?
619 In other words; every thing having a nature or essence, from whence such and such truths concerning it necessarily result, and which it is the proper province of the understanding to perceive; it follows, that nothing whatever can be exempted from its inspection and sentence, and that of every thought, sentiment, and subject, it is the natural and ultimate judge. Actions, therefore, ends and events are within its province. Of these, as well as all other objects, it belongs to it to judge.—What is this judgment?—One would think it impossible for any person, without some hesitation and reluctance, to reply; that the judgment he forms of them is this; that they are all essentially indifferent, and that there is no one thing fitter to be done than another. If this judging truly; how obvious is it to infer, that it signifies not what we do; and that the determination to think otherwise, is an imposition upon rational creatures. Why then should they not labour to suppress in themselves this determination, and to extirpate from their natures all the delusive ideas of morality, worth, and virtue? What though the ruin of the world should follow?—There would be nothing really wrong in this.
620 A rational agent void of all moral judgment, incapable of perceiving a difference, in respect of fitness and unfitness to be performed, between actions, and acting from blind propensions without any sentiments concerning what he does, is not possible to be imagined. And, do what we will, we shall find it out of our power, in earnest to persuade ourselves, that reason can have no concern in judging of and directing our conduct; or to exclude from our minds all notions of right and wrong in actions.* * * * * * *
In short; it seems sufficient to overthrow any scheme, that such consequences, as the following, should arise from it:—That no one being can judge one end to be better than another, or believe a real moral difference between actions; without giving his assent to an impossibility; without mistaking the affections of his own mind for truth, and sensation for knowledge.—That there being nothing intrinsically proper or improper, just or unjust; there is nothing obligatory1 ; but all beings enjoy, from the reasons of things and the nature of actions, liberty to act as they will.
621 The following important corollary arises from these arguments:
That morality is eternal and immutable.
Right and wrong, it appears, denote what actions are. Now whatever any thing is, that it is, not by will, or decree, or power, but by nature and necessity. Whatever a triangle or circle is, that it is unchangeably and eternally. It depends upon no will or power, whether the three angles of a triangle and two right ones shall be equal; whether the periphery of a circle and its diameter shall be incommensurable; or whether matter shall be divisible, moveable, passive, and inert. Every object of the understanding has an indivisible and invariable essence; from whence arise its properties, and numberless truths concerning it. Omnipotence does not consist in a power to alter the nature of things, and to destroy necessary truth (for this is contradictory, and would infer the destruction of all wisdom, and knowledge) but in an absolute command over all particular, external existences, to create or destroy them, or produce any possible changes among them.—The natures of things then being immutable; whatever we suppose the natures of actions to be, they must be immutably. If they are indifferent, this indifference is itself immutable, and there neither is nor can be any one thing that, in reality, we ought to do rather than another. The same is to be said of right and wrong, of moral good and evil, as far as they express real characters of actions. They must immutably and necessarily belong to those actions of which they are truly affirmed.
622 No will, therefore, can render any thing good and obligatory, which was not so antecedently, and from eternity; or any action right, that is not so in itself; meaning by action, not the bare external effect produced, but the ultimate principle of conduct, or the determination of a reasonable being, considered as arising from the perception of some motives and reasons and intended for some end. According to this sense of the word action, whenever the principle from which we act is different, the action is different, though the external effects produced may be the same. If we attend to this, the meaning and truth of what I have just observed will be easily seen.—Put the case of any action, the performance of which is indifferent, or attended with no circumstances of the agent that render it better or fitter to be done than omitted. Is it not plain that, while all things continue the same, it is as impossible for any will or power to make acting obligatory here, as it is for them to make two equal things unequal without producing any change in either? It is true, the doing of any indifferent thing may become obligatory, in consequence of a command from a being possessed of rightful authority over us: But it is obvious, that in this case, the command produces a change in the circumstances of the agent, and that what, in consequence of it, becomes obligatory, is not the same with what before was indifferent. The external effect, that is, the matter of the action is indeed the same; but nothing is plainer, than that actions in this sense the same, may in a moral view be totally different according to the ends aimed at by them, and the principles of morality under which they fall.
623 When an action, otherwise indifferent, becomes obligatory, by being made the subject of a promise; we are not to imagine, that our own will or breath alters the nature of things by making what is indifferent not so. But what was indifferent before the promise is still so; and it cannot be supposed, that, after the promise, it becomes obligatory, without a contradiction. All that the promise does, is, to alter the connexion of a particular effect; or to cause that to be an instance of right conduct which was not so before. There are no effects producible by us, which may not, in this manner, fall under different principles of morality; acquire connexions sometimes with happiness, and sometimes with misery; and thus stand in different relations to the eternal rules of duty.
624 The objection, therefore, to what is here asserted, taken from the effects of positive laws and promises, has no weight. It appears, that when an obligation to particular indifferent actions arises from the command of the Deity, or positive laws; it is by no means to be inferred from hence, that obligation is the creature of will, or that the nature of what is indifferent is changed: nothing then becoming obligatory, which was not so from eternity; that is, obeying the divine will, and just authority. And had there been nothing right in this, had there been no reason from the natures of things for obeying God's will; it is certain, it could have induced no obligation, nor at all influenced an intellectual nature as such. —Will and laws signify nothing, abstracted from something previous to them, in the character of the law-giver and the relations of beings to one another, to give them force and render disobedience a crime. If mere will ever obliged, what reason can be given, why the will of one being should oblige, and of another not; why it should not oblige alike to every thing it requires; and why there should be any difference between power and authority? It is truth and reason, then, that, in all cases, oblige, and not mere will. So far, we see, is it from being possible, that any will or laws should create right; that they can have no effect, but in virtue of natural and antecedent right.
625 Thus, then, is morality fixed on an immoveable basis, and appears not to be, in any sense, factitious; or the arbitrary production of any power human or divine; but equally everlasting and necessary with all truth and reason. And this we find to be as evident, as that right and wrong signify a reality in what is so denominated.
626 I shall conclude this chapter, with observing; that the opinion of those, who maintain that our ideas of morality are derived from sense, is far from being entirely modern. There were among the antients, philosophers, (Protagoras, in particular, and his followers) who entertained a like opinion; but extended it much further; that is, to all science; denied all absolute and immutable truth; and asserted every thing to be relative to perception. And indeed it seems not a very unnatural transition, from denying absolute moral truth, to denying all truth; from making right and wrong, just and unjust, dependent on perception, to asserting the same of whatever we commonly rank among the objects of the understanding. Why may not he who rejects the reality of rightness in beneficence, and of wrong in producing needless misery, be led, by the same steps, to deny the certainty of other self-evident principles? Why may he not as well deny the reality, for example, of straitness in a line drawn the shortest way between two points; or of aptness and unaptness, of connexion and proportion between certain objects and quantities? He that distrusts his reason in the one case, why should he not also in the other? He that refers the former perceptions to a sense; why should he not, with the before-mentioned philosopher, make all knowledge to be sense?* * * * * * *
627 Such is the agreement, in this instance, between the opinions of modern times and those of Socrates's time. Such the tendency of the account of moìatity I have opposed; and it is astonishing how far some, who have embraced it, have extended it to our other perceptions, and revived, perhaps even exceeded, the wildest doctrines of ancient scepticism. The primary as well as secondary qualities of matter, cause, effect, connexion, extension, duration, identity, and almost all about which knowledge is conversant, have been represented as only qualities of our minds: the idea confounded with its object: The esse and the percipi maintained to be universally the same; and the impossibility asserted of every thing except impressions. Thus, is there neither matter, nor morality, nor Deity, nor any kind of external existence left. All our discoveries and boasted knowledge vanish, and the whole universe is reduced into a creature of fancy. Every sentiment of every being is equally just. Nothing being present to our minds besides our own ideas, there can be no conception of any thing distinct from them; no beings but1 ourselves; no distinction between past and future time; no possibility of remembering wrong, or foreseeing wrong. He is the wisest man, who has the most fertile imagination, and whose mind is stored with the greatest number of notions, their conformity to the truth of things being incapable of being questioned.—When speculative men have proceeded to these lengths, or avow principles directly implying them, it becomes high time to leave them to themselves.
628Having considered our ideas of right and wrong; I come now to consider our ideas of beauty, and its contrary.
This is the second kind of sentiment, or perception, with respect to actions, which I noticed at the beginning of the preceding chapter. Little need be said to shew, that it is different from the former. We are plainly conscious of more than the bare discernment of right and wrong, or the cool judgement of reason concerning the natures of actions. We often say of some actions, not only that they are right, but that they are amiable; and of others, not only that they are wrong, but odious and shocking. Every one must see, that these epithets denote the delight; or on the contrary, the horror and detestation felt by ourselves; and, consequently, signify not any real qualities or characters of actions, but the effects in us, or the particular pleasure and pain, attending the consideration of them.
629 ‘What then is the true account of these perceptions? must they not arise entirely from an arbitrary structure of our minds, by which certain objects, when observed, are rendered the occasions of certain sensations and affections? And therefore, in this instance, are we not under a necessity of recurring to a sense? Can there be any connexion, except such as arises from implanted principles, between any perceptions and particular modifications of pleasure and pain in the perceiving mind?’
I answer; That there may be such a connexion; and that I think, there is such a connexion in many instances; and particularly in this instance.
630 Why or how the impressions made by external objects on our boddy organs, produce the sensations constantly attending them, it is not possible for us to discover. The same is true of the sensations and affections of mind produced by the objects of many of the internal senses. In such instances, we can conceive of no connexion between the effects in us and their apparent causes; and the only account we can give is, that ‘such is our frame; so God has seen fit to adapt our faculties and particular objects to one another.’ But this is far from being true universally. There are objects which have a natural aptitude to please or displease our minds. And thus in the spiritual world, the case is the same, as in the corporeal; where, though there are events which we cannot explain, and numberless causes and effects of which, for want of being acquainted with the inward structure and constitution of bodies, we know no more than their existence: There are also causes the manner of whose operation we understand; and events, between which we discern a necessary connexion.
631 One account, therefore, of the sentiments we are examining, is; ‘that such are the natures of certain actions, that, when perceived, there must result certain emotions and affections.’
That there are objects which have a natural aptitude to please or offend, and between which and the contemplating mind there is a necessary congruity or incongruity, seems to me unquestionable.—For, what shall we say of supreme and complete excellence? Is what we mean by this only a particular kind of sensation; or, if something real and objective, can it be contemplated without emotion? Must there he the aid of a sense to make the character of the Deity appear amiable; or, would pure and abstract reason be indifferent to it? Is there any thing more necessary to cause it to he loved and admired besides knowing it? The more it is known, and the better it is understood, must it not the more delight?
Again, a reasonable being, void of all superadded determinations or senses, who knows what order and happiness are, would, I think, unavoidably, receive pleasure from the survey of an universe where perfect order prevailed; and the contrary prospect of universal confusion and misery would offend him.* * * * * * *
632 What is thus true, in these and other instances, is particularly evident in the present case. It is not indeed plainer, that, in any instances, there are correspondencies and connexions of things among themselves; or that one motion has a tendency to produce another; than it is, that virtue is naturally adapted to please every observing mind; and vice the contrary.* * * * * * *
633 To return therefore from this digression. The observations now made will not account for all our feelings and affections with respect to virtue and vice. Our intellectual faculties are in their infancy. The lowest degrees of reason are sufficient to discover moral distinctions in general; because these are self-evident, and included in the ideas of certain actions and characters. They must, therefore, appear to all who are capable of making actions the objects of their reflexion. But the extent to which they appear, and the accuracy and force with which they are discerned; and, consequently, their influence, must, so far as they are the objects of pure intelligence, be in proportion to the strength and improvement of the rational faculties of beings and their acquaintance with truth and the natures of things.
634 From hence, it must appear, that in men it is necessary that the rational principle, or the intellectual discernment of right and wrong, should be aided by instinctive determinations.—The dictates of mere reason, being stow, and deliberate, would be otherwise much too weak. The condition in which we are placed, renders many urgent passions necessary for us; and these cannot but often interfere with our sentiments of rectitude. Reason alone, (imperfect as it is in us) is by no means sufficient to defend us against the danger to which, in such circumstances, we are exposed. Our Maker has, therefore, wisely provided remedies for its imperfections; and established a due balance in our frame by annexing to our intellectual perceptions sensations and instincts, which give them greater weight and force.
In short. The truth seems to be that, ‘in contemplating the actions of moral agents, we have both a perception of the understanding, and a feeling of the heart; and that the latter, or the effects in us accompanying our moral perceptions, depend on two causes. Partly, on the positive constitution of our natures: But principally on the essential congruity or incongruity between moral ideas and our intellectual faculties.’
635 It may be difficult to determine the precise limits between these two sources of our mental feelings; and to say, how far the effects of the one are blended with those of the other. It is undoubted, that we should have felt and acted otherwise than we now do, if the decisions of reason had been left entirely without support; nor is it easy to imagine how pernicious to us this would have proved. On this account it cannot be doubted, but that both the causes I have mentioned unite their influence: And the great question in morality is, not whether we owe much to implanted senses and determinations; but whether we owe all to them.
636 It was, probably, in consequence of not duly considering the difference I have now insisted on between the honestum and pulchrum (the δίκαιον and καλόν) or of not carefully distinguishing between the discernment of the mind, and the sensations attending it in our moral perceptions; that the Author of the Enquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, was led to derive all our ideas of virtue from an implanted sense. Moral good and evil, he every where describes, by the effects accompanying the perception of them. The rectitude of an action is, with him, the same with its gratefulness to the observer; and wrong, the contrary. But what can be more evident, than that right and pleasure, wrong and pain, are as different as a cause and its effect; what is understood, and what is felt; absolute truth, and its agreeableness to the mind.—Let it be granted, as undoubtedly it must, that some degree of pleasure is inseparable from the observation of virtuous actions1 : It is just as unreasonable to infer from hence, that the discernment of virtue is nothing distinct from the reception of this pleasure; as it would be to infer, as some have done, that solidity, extension, and figure are only particular modes of sensation; because attended, whenever they are perceived, with some sensations of sight or touch, and impossible to be conceived by the imagination without them.
637 An able writer on these subjects, tells us that, after some2 doubts, he at last satisfied himself, that all beauty, whether natural or moral, is a species of absolute truth; as resulting from, or consisting in, the necessary relations and congruities of ideas. It is not easy to say what this means. Natural beauty will be considered presently. And as to moral beauty, one would think, that the meaning must be, that it denotes a real quality of certain actions. But the word beauty seems always to refer to the reception of pleasure; and the beauty, therefore, of an action or character, must signify its being such as pleases us, or has an aptness to please when perceived: Nor can it be just to conceive more in the action itself, or to affirm more of it, than this aptness, or that objective goodness or rectitude on which it depends. Beauty and loveliness are synonimous; but an object self-lovely can only mean an object, by its nature, fitted to engage love.* * * * * * *
638 I have already noticed the opinion that natural beauty is a real quality of objects,—It seems impossible for any one to conceive the objects themselves to be endowed with more than a particular order of parts, and with powers, or an affinity to our perceptive faculties, thence arising; and, if we call this beauty, then it is an absolute, inherent quality of certain objects; and equally existent whether any mind discerns it or not. But, surely, order and regularity are, more properly, the causes of beauty than beauty itself.
It may be farther worth the reader's consideration, how far the account given of the pleasures received from the contemplation of moral good and of natural beauty may be applied to the pleasures received from many other sources; as the approbation of our fellow-creatures, greatness of objects, discovery of truth and increase of knowledge.
639 I will only add, than in such enquiries as these, we are necessarily led to consider the nature and origin of our notions of perfection and excellency.
Those who think there is no distinction, in point of real objective excellence and worth, between actions and characters, may be expected to fly to a sense to account for any preference we give in our ideas to any objects1 . We have ideas of different degrees of perfection in different objects; but, upon this scheme, they are all an illusion. The whole compass and possibility of being is, to the eye of right reason, in this respect entirely on a level. The very notion of intrinsic excellence, self-worth and different degrees of objective perfection and imperfection, implies an impossibility and contradiction.—How can it be possible for any person to acquiesce in such an opinion? When we conceive of an intelligent being as a more noble and perfect nature than a clod of earth; do we then err? Is it owing to an implanted power, that we make such a distinction; or that, in particular, we give the preference in our esteem to the divine nature, as surpassing infinitely in excellence and dignity all other natures? The truth is; these, like the other ideas taken notice of in the preceding chapter, are ideas of the understanding. They are derived from the cognizance it takes of the comparative essences of things; and arise necessarily in our minds upon considering certain objects and qualities because they denote not what we feel, but what such objects and qualities are.
640 There is in nature an infinite variety of existences and objects, which we as unavoidably conceive endowed with various degrees of perfection, as we conceive of them at all, or consider them as different. It is not possible to contemplate and compare dead matter and life; brutality and reason; misery and happiness; virtue and vice; ignorance and knowledge; impotence and power; the deity and inferior beings; without acquiring the ideas of better and worse; perfect and imperfect; noble and ignoble; excellent and base.—The first remove from nothing is unwrought matter. Next above this is vegetative life; from whence we ascend to sensitive and animal life, and from thence to happy and active intelligence; which admits of an infinite variety of degrees, and of different orders and classes of beings, rising without end, above one another. Every successive advance of our thoughts in this gradation, conveys the notion of higher and higher excellence and worth; till at last we arrive at uncreated and complete excellence. If this is not intellectual perception, but sensation merely; then may all nature as it now stands in our ideas be reversed; and the dust we tread be conceived to possess supreme excellence, as justly and truly as now the contrary is conceived.
641 I am pleased to find an excellent writer expressing fully my sentiments on this subject1 ‘We cannot (says he) avoid observing, that of things which occur to our thoughts, the idea of superior excellence accompanies some upon a comparison with others. As the external senses distinguish between pleasant and painful in their objects, and the internal sense perceives a difference between the beautiful and the deformed; so the understanding not only separates truth from falsehood, but discerns a dignity in some beings and some qualities beyond others. It is not possible for a man to consider inanimate nature and life, the brutal and the rational powers, or virtue and vice, with a perfect indifference, or without preferring one before the other in his esteem. And the idea of a difference in the degrees of their perfection, as necessarily arises in his mind, as that of a difference in their being.’
OftheOriginof ourDesiresandAffections.* * * * * * *
642 As all moral approbation and disapprobation, and our ideas of beauty and deformity, have been ascribed to an internal sense; meaning by this, not ‘any inward power of perception,’ but ‘an implanted power, different from reason;’ so, all our desires and affections have, in like manner, been ascribed to instinct, meaning by instinct, not merely ‘the immediate desire of an object,’ but ‘the reason of this desire; or an implanted propension.’—The former opinion I have already at large examined. I am now to examine the latter.
‘Is then all desire to be considered as wholly instinctive? Is it, in particular, owing to nothing but an original bias given our natures, which they might have either wanted or have received in a contrary direction; that we are at all concerned for our own good, or for the good of others?’
643 As far as this enquiry relates to private good, we may without hesitation answer in the negative. The desire of happiness for ourselves, certainly arises not from instinct. The full and adequate account of it, is, the nature of happiness. It is impossible, but that creatures capable of pleasant and painful sensations, should love and chuse the one, and dislike and avoid the other. No being, who knows what happiness and misery are, can be supposed indifferent to them, without a plain contradiction. Pain is not a possible object of desire; nor happiness, of aversion. No power whatsoever can cause a creature, in the agonies of torture and misery, to be pleased with his state, to like it for itself, or to wish to remain so. Nor can any power cause a creature rejoicing in bliss to dislike his state, or be afraid of its continuance. Then only can this happen, when pain can be agreeable, and pleasure disagreeable; that is, when pain can be pleasure; and pleasure, pain.
644 From hence I infer, that it is by no means, in general, an absurd method of explaining our affections, to derive them from the natures of things and of beings. For thus without doubt we are to account for one of the most important and active of all our affections. To the preference and desire of private happiness by all beings, nothing more is requisite than to know what it is.—‘And may not this be true, likewise, of public happiness? May not benevolence be essential to intelligent beings, as well as self-love to sensible beings?’
645 But to enter a little more minutely into the discussion of this point. Let us, again, put the case of a being purely reasonable. It is evident, that (though by supposition void of implanted byasses) he would not want all principles of action, and all inclinations. It has been shewn he would perceive Virtue, and possess affection to it, in proportion to the degree of his knowledge. The nature of happiness also would engage him to chuse and desire it for himself. And is it credible that, at the same time, he would be necessarily indifferent about it for others? Can it be supposed to have that in it, which would determine him to seek it for himself; and yet to have nothing in it, which could engage him to approve of it for? Would the nature of things, upon this supposition, be consistent? Would he not be capable of seeing, that the happiness of others is to them as important as his is to him; and that it is in itself equally valuable and desirable, whoever possesses it?
Let us again enquire; would not this being assent to this proposition; ‘happiness is better than misery’?—A definition has been asked of the word better here. With equal reason might a definition be asked of the word greater, when the whole is affirmed to be greater than a part. Both denote simple ideas, and both truth. The one, what happiness is, compared with misery; and the other, what the whole is, compared with a part. And a mind that should think happiness not to be better than misery, would mistake as grossly, as a mind that should believe the whole not to be greater than a part. It cannot therefore be reasonably doubted, but that such a being, upon a comparison of happiness and misery, would as unavoidably as he perceives their difference, prefer the one to the other; and clause the one rather than the other, for his fellow-beings.* * * * * * *
646 It is confessed, that, in our inward sentiments, we are determined to make a distinction between publick happiness and misery; and to apprehend a preferableness of the one to the other. But it is asserted, that this is owing to our frame; that it arises from senses and instincts given us, and not from the nature of happiness and misery.—But why is this asserted? It may be owing to the latter cause. The instance of self-love demonstrates this.—Let any thing equivalent be offered to prove the contrary.* * * * * * *
647 The desire of knowledge also, and the preference of Truth, must arise in every intelligent mind. Truth is the proper object of mind, as light is of the eye, or harmony of the ear. To this it is, by its nature, fitted, and upon this depends its existence; there being no idea possible of mind, or understanding, without something to be understood. Truth and Science are of infinite extent; and it is not conceivable, that the understanding can be indifferent to them; that it should want inclination to search into them; that its progress, in the discovery of them, should be attended with no satisfaction; or that, with the prospect before it of unbounded scope for improvement and endless acquisitions, it should be capable of being equally contented with error, darkness, and ignorance.
Why, therefore, reasonable beings love truth, knowledge, and honour, is to be answered in the same manner with the enquiry, why they love and desire happiness?
648 In the method now pursued, we might go on to give a particular explication of the causes and grounds of the various sentiments of veneration, awe, love, wonder, esteem, &c. produced within us by the contemplation of certain objects. As some objects are adapted to please, and as others necessarily excite desire; so almost every different object has a different effect on our minds, according to its different nature and qualities. And these emotions, or impressions, are almost as different and various, as the objects themselves of our consideration. Why should we scruple ascribing them to a necessary correspondence between them and their respective objects?—It cannot be true, that, antecedently to arbitrary constitution, any affections of our minds are equally and indifferently applicable to an), objects and qualities: Nor can any one assert this, without going so far as to deny all real connexion between causes and effects.
649 But it must not be forgotten, that, in men, the sentiments and tendencies of our intelligent nature are, in a great degree, mingled with the effects of arbitrary constitution. It is necessary this observation, before insisted on, should be here called to mind. Rational and dispassionate benevolence would, in us, be a principle much too weak, and utterly insufficient for the purposes of our present state. And the same is true of our other rational principles and desires.
650 And this, perhaps, will afford us a good reason for distinguishing between affections and passions. The former, which we apply indiscriminately to all reasonable beings, may most properly signify the desires founded in the reasonable nature itself, and essential to it; such as self-love, benevolence, and the love of truth.—These, when strengthened by instinctive determinations, take the latter denomination; or are, properly, passions.—Those tendencies within us that are merely instinctive, such as hunger, thirst, &c., we commonly call appetites or passions indifferently, but seldom or never affections.
651 I cannot help, in this place, stepping aside a little to take notice of an opinion already referred to; I mean, the opinion of those who will allow of no ultimate object of desire besides private good. What has led to this opinion has been inattention to the difference between desire, and the pleasure implied in the gratification of it. The latter is subsequent to the former, and founded in it: That is, an object, such as fame, knowledge, or the welfare of a friend, is desired, not because we foresee that when obtained, it will give us pleasure; but, vice versa; obtaining it gives us pleasure, because we previously desired it or had an affection carrying us to it and resting in it. And, were there no such affections, the very foundations of happiness would be destroyed. It cannot be conceived, that obtaining what we do not desire, should be the cause of pleasure to us; or that what we are perfectly indifferent to, and is not the end of any affection, should, upon being possessed, be the means of any kind of gratification1
652 Besides; if every object of desire is considered—merely as the cause of pleasure; one would think, that, antecedently to experience, no one object could be desired more than another; and that the first time we contemplated fame, knowledge, or the happiness of others; or had any of the objects of our natural passions and desires proposed to us, we must have been absolutely indifferent to them, and remained so, till, by some means, we were convinced of the connexion between them and pleasure.
653 For farther satisfaction on this point, nothing can be more proper than to consider; whether, supposing we could enjoy the same pleasure without the object of our desire, we should be indifferent to it. Could we enjoy pleasures equivalent to those attending knowledge, or the approbation of others, without them, or with infamy and ignorance, would we no longer wish for the one or be averse to the other? Would a person lose all curiosity, and be indifferent whether he stirred a step to gratify it, were he assured he should receive equal sensations of pleasure by staying where he is? Did you believe, that the prosperity of your nearest kindred, your friends or your country, would be the means of no greater happiness to you, than their misery; would you lose all love to them, and all desires of their good?—Would you not chuse to enjoy the same quantity of pleasure with virtue, rather than without it?—An unbiassed mind must spurn at such enquiries; and any one, who would, in this manner, examine himself, might easily find, that all his affections and appetites (self-love itself excepted) are, in their nature, disinterested; and that, though the seat of them be self, and the effect of them the gratification of self, their direct tendency is always to some particular object different from private pleasure, beyond which they carry not our view. So far is it from being true, that, in following their impulses, we aim at nothing but our own interest; that we continually feel them drawing us astray from what we know to be our interest; and may observe men every day carried by them to actions and pursuits, which they acknowledge to be ruinous to them.* * * * * * *
OfourIdeasof good and illDesert.
654It is needless to say any thing to shew that the ideas of good and ill desert necessarily arise in us upon considering certain actions and characters; or, that we conceive virtue as always worthy, and vice as the contrary. These ideas are plainly a species of the ideas of right and wrong. There is, however, the following difference between them, which may be worth mentioning. The epithets, right and wrong, are, with strict propriety, applied only to actions; but good and ill desert belong rather to the agent. It is the agent alone, that is capable of happiness or misery; and, therefore, it is he alone that properly can be said to deserve these.
I apprehend no great difficulty in explaining these ideas. They suppose virtue practised, or neglected; and regard the treatment due to beings in consequence of this. They signify the propriety which there is in making virtuous agents happy, and in discountenancing the vicious. When we say, a man deserves well, we mean, that his character is such, that we approve of shewing him favour; or that it is right he should be happier than if he had been of a contrary character. We cannot but love a virtuous agent, and desire his happiness above that of others. Reason determines at once, that he ought to be the better for his virtue.* * * * * * *
655 Different characters require different treatment. Virtue affords a reason for communicating happiness to the agent. Vice is a reason for withdrawing favour, and for punishing.—This seems to be very intelligible. But in order farther to explain this point, it is necessary to observe particularly, that the whole foundation of the sentiments now mentioned is by no means this; ‘the tendency of virtue to the happiness of the world, and of vice to its misery; or the publick utility of the one, and perniciousness of the other.’—We have an immediate approbation of making the virtuous happy, and discouraging the vicious, abstracted from all consequences. Were there but two beings in the universe, one of whom was virtuous, the other vicious; or, were we to conceive two such beings, in other respects alike, governed apart from the rest of the world, and removed for ever from the notice of all other creatures; we should still approve of a different treatment of them. That the good being should be less happy, or a greater sufferer, than his evil fellow being, would appear to us wrong.* * * * * * *
656 The moral worth or merit of an agent, then, is, ‘his virtue considered as implying the fitness, that good should be communicated to him preferably to others; and as disposing all observers to esteem, and love him, and study his happiness.’—Virtue naturally, and of itself, recommends to favour and happiness, qualifies for them, and renders the being possessed of it the proper object of encouragement and reward. It is, in a like sense, we say that a person, who has been a benefactor to another, deserves well of him; that benefits received ought to be acknowledged and recompensed; and, that the person who bestows them is, preferably to others, the proper object of our regard and benevolence.
657 I deny not, but that one circumstance of great importance, upon which is grounded the fitness of countenancing virtue and discountenancing vice among reasonable beings, is, the manifest tendency of this to prevent misery, and to preserve order and happiness in the world. What I assert is, that it is not all that renders such a procedure right; but that, setting aside the consideration of publick interest, it would still remain right to make a distinction between the lots of the virtuous and vicious. Vice is of essential demerit; and virtue is in itself rewardable.* * * * * * *
658 In the case of a single, solitary evil being, it may perhaps be very true, that the only thing that could justify putting him into a state of absolute misery, would be its conduciveness to his reformation. But the reason why we approve of using methods to accomplish his reformation, is not merely this; ‘that it is expedient to his happiness.’ For were this true, it would, in a moral view, be indifferent whether he was made happy in consequence of being punished and thus reformed, or in consequence of such an extraordinary communication of advantages as should counter-act and over-balance any sufferings necessarily occasioned by his vices. Can we equally approve these opposite methods of treating such a being? Supposing the same quantity of happiness enjoyed, is it indifferent whether a being enjoys it in a course of wickedness, or of virtue?—It would be extravagant to assert, that there is no possible method whereby a being can, in any degree, escape the hurtful effects of his vices, or lose the beneficial effects of his virtue. We see enough in the present world to convince us of the contrary.* * * * * * *
Ofthe relation ofMoralityto theDivine Nature; theRectitudeof ourFaculties; and theGroundsofBelief.
659Morality has been represented as necessary and immutable There is an objection to this, which to some has appeared of considerable weight, and which it will be proper to examine.
It may seem ‘that this is setting up something distinct from God, which is independent of him, and equally eternal and necessary.’
It is easy to see that this difficulty affects morality no more than it does all truth. If for this reason, we must give up the unalterable natures of right and wrong, and make them dependent on the Divine will; we must, for the same reason, give up all necessary truth, and assert the possibility of contradictions.
What I have hitherto aimed at has been, to prove that morality is a branch of necessary truth, and that it has the same foundation with it. If this is acknowledged, the main point I contend for is granted, and I shall be very willing that truth and morality should stand and fall together. This subject however cannot be pursued far enough, and morality traced to its source, without entering into the consideration of the difficulty now proposed; which naturally occurs in all enquiries of this sort.
660 In the first place, therefore, let it be observed, that something there certainly is which we must allow not to be dependent on the will of God. For instance; this will itself; his own existence; his eternity and immensity; the difference between power and impotence, wisdom and folly, truth and falsehood, existence and non-existence.
To suppose these dependent on his will, is so extravagant, that no one can assert it. It would imply, that he is a changeable and precarious being, and render it impossible for us to form any consistent ideas of his existence and attributes. But these must be the creatures of will, if all truth be so.—There is another view of this notion, which shews that it overthrows the Divine attributes and existence. For,
661 Secondly, Mind supposes truth; and intelligence, something intelligible. Wisdom supposes certain objects about which it is conversant; and knowledge, knowables.—An eternal, necessary mind supposes eternal, necessary truth; and infinite knowledge, infinite knowables. If then there were no infinity of knowables; no eternal, necessary, independent1 truths; there could be no infinite, independent necessary mind or intelligence; because there would be nothing to be certainly and eternally known. Just as, if there were nothing possible, there could be no power; or, if there were no necessary infinity of possibles, there could be no necessary, infinite power; because power supposes objects, and eternal, necessary, infinite power, an infinity of eternal and necessary possibles.
662 In like manner it may be said, that if there were no moral distinctions, there could be no moral attributes in the Deity. If there were nothing eternally and unalterably right and wrong, there could be nothing meant by his eternal, unalterable rectitude or holiness.—It is evident, therefore, that annihilating truth, possibility, or moral differences, is indeed annihilating all mind, all power, all goodness; and that so far as we make the former precarious, dependent, or limited; so far we make the latter so too.
663 Hence we see clearly, that to conceive of truth as depending on God's will, is to conceive of his intelligence and knowledge? as depending on his will. And is it possible, that any one can think this as reasonable, as, on the contrary, to conceive of his will (which, from the nature of it, requires something to guide and determine it) as dependent on and regulated by his understanding?—What can be more preposterous, than to make the Deity nothing but will; and to exalt this on the ruins of all his attributes?
664 But it may still be urged, that these observations remove not the difficulty; but rather strengthen it. We are still left to conceive of ‘certain objects, distinct from Deity, which are necessary and independent; and on which too his existence and attributes are founded; and without which, we cannot so much as form any idea of them.’ I answer; we ought to distinguish between the will of God and his nature. It by no means follows, because they are independent of his will, that they are also independent of his nature. To conceive thus of them would indeed involve us in the greatest inconsistencies. Wherever, or in whatever objects, necessity and infinity occur to our thoughts, the divine, eternal nature is to be acknowledged.* * * * * * *
665 Let it be remembered here, that in necessary truth, is included the comparative natures of happiness and misery; the right in producing the one, and the wrong in producing the other; and, in general, moral truth, moral fitness and excellence, and all that is best to be done in all cases, and with respect to all the variety of actual or possible beings and worlds.—This is the necessary goodness of the divine nature.— It demonstrates, that, in the divine intelligence, absolute rectitude is included; and that eternal, infinite power and reason are in essential conjunction with, and imply complete, moral excellence, and particularly perfect and boundless Benevolence. It shews us, that whenever we transgress truth and right, we immediately affront that God who is truth and right; and that, on the contrary, whenever we determine ourselves agreeably to them, we pay immediate homage to him.
666 From the whole it is plain, that none have reason to be offended, when morality is represented as eternal and immutable; for it appears that it is only saying that God himself is eternal and immutable, and making his nature the high and sacred original of virtue, and the sole fountain of all that is true and good and perfect.
The same kind of reasoning with some that I have here used has been, by Dr. Clark, applied, (and I think justly) to space and duration: But these sentiments are more particularly countenanced by Dr. Cudworth, who, at the end of his Treatise on Eternal and immutable Morality, has considered the same difficulty, and given a like answer to it.* * * * * * *
667 I shall conclude this chapter with a few observations on the general grounds of belief and assent. These may be all comprehended under the three following heads.
The first is immediate consciousness or feeling. It is absurd to ask a reason for our believing what we feel, or are inwardly conscious of. A thinking being must necessarily have a capacity of discovering some things in this way. It is from hence particularly we acquire the knowledge of our own existence, and of the several operations, passions, and sensations of our minds. And it is also under this head I would comprehend the information we derive from our powers of recollection or memory.
668 The second ground of belief is intuition; by which I mean the mind's survey of its own ideas, and the relations between them, and the notice it takes of what is or is not true and false, consistent and inconsistent, possible and impossible in the natures of things. It is to this, as has been explained at large in the first chapter, we owe our belief of all self-evident truths; our ideas of the general, abstract affections and relations of things; our moral ideas, and whatsoever else we discover, without making use of any process of reasoning.—It is on this power of intuition, essential, in some degree or other, to all rational minds, that the whole possibility of all reasoning is founded. To it the last appeal is ever made. Many of its perceptions are capable, by attention, of being rendered more clear; and many of the truths discovered by it, may be illustrated by an advantageous representation of them, or by being viewed in particular lights; but seldom will admit of proper proof.—Some truths there must be, which can appear only by their own light, and which are incapable of proof; otherwise nothing could be proved, or known; in the same manner as, if there were no letters, there could be no words, or if there were no simple or undefinable ideas, there could be no complex ideas.—I might mention many instances of truths discernible no other way than intuitively, which learned men have strangely confounded and obscured, by supposing them subjects of reasoning and deduction. One of the most important instances, the subject of this treatise affords us; and another we have, in our notions of the necessity of a cause of whatever begins to exist, and our general ideas of power and connexion1 : And, sometimes, reason has been ridiculously employed to prove even our own existence.
669 The third ground of belief is argumentation or deduction. This we have recourse to when intuition fails us; and it is, as just now hinted, highly necessary, that we carefully distinguish between these two, mark their differences and limits, and observe what information we owe to the one or the other of them.—Our ideas are such, that, by comparing them amongst themselves, we can find out numberless truths concerning them, and, consequently, concerning actually existent objects, as far as correspondent to them, which would be otherwise undiscoverable. Thus, a particular relation between two ideas, which cannot be discerned by any immediate comparison, may appear, to the greatest satisfaction, by the help of a proper, intermediate idea, whose relation to each is either self evident, or made out by some precedent reasoning.* * * * * * *
It would be needless to give any instances of knowledge derived from Argumentation. All is to be ascribed to it, which we have not received from either of the preceding sources.* * * * * * *
Of Fitness, andMoral Obligation, and the variousFormsofExpression, which have been used by differentWritersin explaining morality.
670After the account has been given of the nature and origin of our ideas of morality; it will be easy to perceive the meaning of several terms and phrases, which are commonly used in speaking on this subject.
Fitness and unfitness most frequently denote the congruity or incongruity, aptitude or inaptitude of any means to accomplish an end. But when applied to actions, they generally signify the same with right and wrong; nor is it often hard to determine in which of these senses these words are to be understood. It is worth observing, that fitness, in the former sense, is equally undefinable with fitness in the latter; or, that it is as impossible to express, in any other than synonymous words, what we mean, when we say of certain objects, ‘that they have a fitness to one another; or are fit to answer certain purposes,’ as it is when we say, ‘reverencing the Deity is fit, or beneficence is fit to be practised.’ In the first of these instances, none can avoid owning the absurdity of making an arbitrary sense the source of the idea of fitness, and of concluding that it signifies nothing real in objects, and that no one thing can be properly the means of another. In both cases the term fit, signifies a simple perception of the understanding.
Morally good and evil, reasonable and unreasonable, are epithets also commonly applied to actions, evidently meaning the same with right and wrong, fit and unfit.
Approving an action is the same with discerning it to be right; as assenting to a proposition is the same with discerning it to be true.
671 But Obligation is the term most necessary to be here considered; and to the explication of it, the best part of this chapter shall be devoted.
Obligation to action, and rightness of action, are plainly coincident and identical; so far so, that we cannot form a notion of the one, without taking in the other. This may appear to any one upon considering, whether he can point out any difference between what is right, meet or fit to be done, and what ought to be done. It is not indeed plainer, that figure implies something figured, solidity resistence, or an effect a cause, than it is that rightness implies oughtness (if I may be allowed this word) or obligatoriness. And as easily can we conceive of figure without extension, or motion without a change of place, as that it can be fit for us to do an action, and yet that it may not be what we should do, what it is our duty to do, or what we are under an obligation to do. b Right, fit, ought, should, duty, obligation, convey, then, ideas necessarily including one another. From hence it follows,
672 First, That virtue, as such, has a real obligatory power antecedently to all positive laws, and independently of all will; for obligation, we see, is involved in the very nature of it. To affirm, that the performance of that, which, to omit, would be wrong, is not obligatory, unless conducive to private good or enjoined by a superior power, is a manifest contradiction. It is to say, that it is not true, that a thing is what it is; or that we are obliged to do what we ought to do; unless it be the object of a command, or, in some manner, privately useful.—If there are any actions fit to be done by an agent, besides such as tend to his own happiness, those actions, by the terms, are obligatory, independently of their influence on his happiness.—Whatever it is wrong to do, that it is our duty not to do, whether enjoined or not by any positive law1 .—I cannot conceive of any thing much more evident than this.—It appears, therefore, that those who maintain that all obligation is to be deduced from positive laws, the Divine will, or self-love, assert what (if they mean any thing contrary to what is here said) implies, that the words right and just stand for no real and distinct characters of actions; but signify merely what is willed and commanded, or conducive to private advantage, whatever that be; so that any thing may be both right and wrong, morally good and evil at the same time and in any circumstances, as it may be commanded or forbidden by different laws and wills; and any the most pernicious effects will become just, and fit to be produced by any being, if but the smallest degree of clear advantage or pleasure may result to him from them.
673 Those who say, nothing can oblige but the will of God, generally resolve the power of this to oblige to the annexed rewards and punishments. And thus, in reality, they subvert entirely the independent natures of moral good and evil; and are forced to maintain, that nothing can oblige, but the prospect of pleasure to be obtained, or pare to be avoided. If this be true, it follows that vice is, properly, no more than imprudence; that nothing is right or wrong, just or unjust, any farther than it affects self-interest; and that a being, independently and completely happy, cannot have any moral perceptions. The justness of these inferences cannot be denied by one, who will attend to the coincidence here insisted on between obligation and virtue.
674 But to pursue this point farther; let me ask, would a person who either believes there is no God, or that he does not concern himself with human affairs, feel no moral obligations, and therefore not be at all accountable? Would one, who should happen not to be convinced, that virtue tends to his happiness here or hereafter, be released from every bond of duty and morality? Or, would he, if he believed no future state, and that, in any instance, virtue was against his present interest, be truly obliged, in these instances, to be wicked?—These consequences must follow, if obligation depends entirely on the knowledge of the will of a superior, or on the connexion between actions and private interest.—But, indeed, the very expression, virtue tends to our happiness, and the supposition that, in certain cases, it may be inconsistent with it, imply that it may exist independently of any connexion with private interest; and would have no sense, if it signified only the relation of actions to private interest. For then, to suppose virtue to be inconsistent with our happiness, would be the same with supposing, that what is advantageous to us, may be disadvantageous to us.
675 It is strange to find those who plead for self-interest, as the only ground of moral obligation, asserting that, when virtue clashes with present enjoyments, all motives to it cease, supposing no future state. For, upon their principles, the truth is not, that all motives to practice virtue, would, in these circumstances, cease, but that virtue itself would cease; nay, would be changed into vice; and what would otherwise have been fit and just, become unlawful and wrong: For, being under an obligation in these circumstances not to do what appeared to us fit, it could not in reality be fit; we could not do it without violating our duty, and therefore certainly, not without doing wrong. Thus, all who find not their present account in virtue, would, upon these principles (setting aside another world) be under an obligation to be wicked. Or, to speak more properly, the subject-matter of virtue and vice (that is, the relation of particular actions to private good) would be altered; what was before wickedness would become virtue, and what was before virtue would become wickedness.—It should be carefully minded that, as far as another world creates obligation, it creates virtue; for it is an absurdity too gross to be maintained, that we may act contrary to our obligations, and yet act virtuously.
676 Another observation worthy our notice in this place, is, that rewards and punishments suppose, in the very idea of them, moral obligation, and are founded upon it. They do not make it, but enforce it. They are the sanctions of virtue, and not its efficients. A reward supposes something done to deserve it, or a conformity to obligation subsisting previously to it; and punishment is always inflicted on account of some breach of obligation. Were we under no obligations, antecedently to the proposal of rewards and punishments, it would be a contradiction to suppose us subjects capable of them.—A person without any light besides that of nature, and supposed ignorant of a future state of rewards and punishments and the will of the Deity, might discover these by reasoning from his natural notions of morality and duty. But were the latter dependent on the former, and not vice versa; this could not be said, nor should we have any principles left, from which to learn the will of the Deity, and the conditions of his favour to us.
677 Secondly, From the account given of obligation, it follows that rectitude is a law as well as a rule to us; that it not only directs, but binds all, as far as it is perceived.—With respect to its being a. rule, we may observe, that a rule of action signifying some measure or standard to which we are to conform our actions, or some information we possess concerning what we ought to do, there can, in this sense, be no other rule of action; all besides, to which this name can be properly given, implying it, or signifying only helps to the discovery of it. To perceive or to be informed how it is right to act, is the very notion of a direction to act. And it must be added, that it is such a direction as implies authority, and which we cannot disregard or neglect without remorse and pain. Reason is the guide, the natural and authoritative guide of a rational being. Where he has no discernment of right and wrong, there, and there only, is he (morally speaking) free. But where he has this discernment, where moral good appears to him, and he cannot avoid pronouncing concerning an action, that it is fit to be done, and evil to omit it; here he is tied in the most strict and absolute manner, in bonds that no power in nature can dissolve, and from which he can at no time, or in any single instance, break loose, without offering the most unnatural violence to himself; without making an inroad into his own soul, and immediately pronouncing his own sentence,
678 That is properly a law to us, which we always and unavoidably feel and own ourselves obliged to obey; and which, as we obey or disobey it, is attended with the immediate sanctions of inward triumph and self-applause, or of inward shame and self-reproach, together with the secret apprehensions of the favour or displeasure of a superior righteous power, and the anticipations of future rewards, and punishments.—That has proper authority over us, to which, if we refuse submission, we transgress our duty, incur guilt, and expose ourselves to just vengeance. All this is certainly true of our moral judgment, and contained in the idea of it.* * * * * * *
679 Thirdly, From the account given of obligation, it appears how absurd it is to enquire, what obliges us to practise virtue? as if obligation was no part of the idea of virtue, but something adventitious and foreign to it; that is, as if what was due, might not be our duty, or what was wrong, unlawful; or as if it might not be true, that what it is fit to do we ought to do, and that what we ought to do, we are obliged to do.— To ask, why are we obliged to practise virtue, to abstain from what is wicked, or perform what is just, is the very same as to ask, why we are obliged to do what we are obliged to do?—It is not possible to avoid wondering at those, who have so unaccountably embarrassed themselves, on a subject that one would think was attended with no difficulty; and who, because they cannot find any thing in virtue and duty themselves, which can induce us to pay a regard to them in our practice, fly to self-love, and maintain that from hence alone are derived all inducement and obligation.
680 Fourthly, From what has been observed, it may appear, in what sense obligation is ascribed to God. It is no more than ascribing to him the perception of rectitude, or saying, that there are certain ends, and certain measures in the administration of the world, which he approves, and which are better to be pursued than others.—Great care, however, should be taken, what language we here use. Obligation is a word to which many persons have affixed several ideas, which should by no means be retained when we speak of God. Our language and our conceptions, whenever he is the subject of them, are always extremely defective and inadequate, and often very erroneous.—There are many who think it absurd and shocking to attribute any thing of obligation or law to a being who is necessarily sufficient and independent, and to whom nothing can be prior or superior. How, I conceive, we are to frame our apprehensions on this subject, has already, in some measure, appeared. It should, methinks, be enough to satisfy such persons, that the obligations ascribed to the Deity arise entirely from and exist in his own nature; and that the eternal, unchangeable law, by which it has been said, he is directed in all his actions, is no other than himself; his own infinite, eternal, all perfect understanding.
681 Fifthly, What has been said also shews us, on what the obligations of religion and the Divine will are founded. They are plainly branches of universal rectitude. Our obligation to obey God's will means nothing, but that obedience is due to it, or that it is right and fit to comply with it. What an absurdity is it then, to make obligation subsequent to the Divine will, and the creature of it? For why, upon this supposition, does not all will oblige equally? If there be any thing which gives the preference to one will above another; that, by the terms, is moral rectitude. What would any laws or will of any being signify, what influence could they have on the determinations of a moral agent, was there no good reason for complying with them, no obligation to regard them, no antecedent right of command?—
682 Farther, what has been said will shew us, what judgment to form concerning several accounts and definitions, which have been given of obligation. It is easy here to perceive the perplexity arising from attempting to define words expressing simple perceptions of the mind.—An ingenious and able writer1 defines obligation to be a state of the mind into which it is brought by perceiving a reason for action. Let this definition be substituted wherever the words duty, should, obliged, occur; and it will soon be seen how defective it is. The meaning of it is plainly, that obligation denotes that attraction or excitement which the mind feels upon perceiving right and wrong. But this is the effect of obligation perceived, rather than obligation itself. Besides, it is proper to say, that the duty or obligation to act is a reason for acting; and then this definition will stand thus: obligation is a state of the mind into which it is brought by perceiving obligation to act.—This author divides obligation into external and internal; by the former, meaning the excitement we feel to pursue pleasure as sensible agents; and, by the latter, the excitement we feel to pursue virtue as reasonable and moral agents. But, as merely sensible beings, we are incapable of obligation; otherwise it might be properly applied to brutes, which, I think, it never is. What, in these instances, produces confusion, is not distinguishing between perception and the effect of it; between obligation and a motive. All motives are not obligations; though the contrary is true, that wherever there is obligation, there is also a motive to action.—Some perhaps, by obligation, may only mean such a motive to act, as shall have the greatest influence, and be most likely to determine us, and as far as this is all that is intended, it may be allowed, that the obligation to practise virtue depends greatly, as mankind are now situated, on its connexion with private interest, and the views of future rewards and punishments.
683 Obligation has, by several writers, been styled, the necessity of doing a thing in order to be happy2 . I have already taken sufficient notice of the opinion from which this definition is derived; and therefore shall here only ask, what, if this be the only sense of obligation, is meant when we say, a man is obliged to study his own happiness? Is it not obvious that obliged, in this proposition, signifies, not the necessity of doing a thing in order to be happy, which would make it ridiculous; but only, that it is right to study our own happiness, and wrong to neglect it?
684 A very learned author1 maintains, that moral obligation always denotes some object of will and law, or implies some obliger. Were this true; it would be mere jargon to mention our being obliged to obey the Divine will and yet, this is as proper language as any we can use. But his meaning seems to be, that the word obligation signifies only the particular fitness of obeying the Divine will, and cannot properly be applied to any other fitness; which is restraining the sense of the word, in a manner which the common use of it by no means warrants.
685 The sense of obligation given by Dr. Hutcheson2 , agrees in some measure, with the account here given of it. Then, he says, a person is obliged to an action, when every spectator, or he himself, upon reflexion, must approve his action and disapprove omitting it. This account, however, is not perfectly accurate; for though obligation to act, and reflex approbation and disapprobation do, in one3 sense, always accompany and imply one another; yet they seem as different as an act and an object of the mind, or as perception and the truth perceived. It is not exactly the same to say, it is our duty to do a thing; and to say, we approve of doing it. The one is the quality of the action, the other the discernment of that quality. Yet, such is the connexion between these, that it is not very necessary to distinguish them; and, in common language, the term obligation often stands for the sense and judgment of the mind concerning what is fit or unfit to be done. It would, nevertheless, I imagine, prevent some confusion, and keep our ideas more distinct and clear, to remember, that a man's consciousness that an action ought to be done, or the judgment concerning obligation and inducing or inferring it, cannot, properly speaking, be obligation itself; and that, however variously and loosely this word may be used, its primary and original signification coincides with rectitude1 .
686 I shall leave the reader to judge how far these remarks are applicable to what Dr. Clarke says on this head, who gives much the same account of obligation with that last mentioned; and some of whose words it may not be amiss to quote. See his Evidences of Natural and revealed Religion, page 43, 6th Edit. ‘The judgment and conscience of a man's own mind, concerning the reasonableness and fitness of the thing, that his actions should be conformed to such or such a rule or law, is the truest and formallest obligation, even more properly and strictly so, than any opinion whatsoever, of the authority of the giver of a law, or any regard he may have to its sanctions by rewards and punishments; for whoever acts contrary to this sense and conscience of his own mind, is necessarily self-condemned; and the greatest and strongest of all obligations, is that which a man cannot break through without condemning himself.—The original obligation of all is the eternal reason of things; that reason which God himself, who has no superior to direct him, and to whose happiness nothing can be added, nor any thing diminished from it, yet constantly obliges himself to govern the world by.— So far, therefore, as men are conscious of what is right and wrong, so far they are under an obligation to act accordingly; and, consequently, that eternal rule of right which I have been hitherto describing, it is evident, ought as indispensably to govern men's actions, as it cannot but necessarily determine their assent.’ Page 51, he says, ‘The minds of men cannot but acknowledge the reasonableness and fitness of their governing all their actions by the rule of right or equity: And this assent is a formal obligation upon every man actually and constantly to conform himself to that rule.’
687 Dr. Butler, likewise, in his Sermons on Human Nature, and the explanatory remarks upon them in the Preface, insists strongly on the obligation implied in reflex approbation; the supremacy belonging to the principle of reflexion within us; and the authority and right of superintendency which are constituent parts of the idea of it. From this incomparable writer, I beg leave to borrow one observation more of considerable importance, on this subject.
‘Every being endowed with reason, and conscious of right and wrong, is, as such, necessarily a law to himself1 : It follows, therefore, that the greatest degree of ignorance or scepticism possible, with respect to the tendencies of virtue, the authority of the Deity, a future state, and the rewards and punishments to be expected in it, leaves us still truly and fully accountable, guilty, and punishable, if we trangress this law; and will, by no means, exempt us from justice, or be of any avail to excuse or save us, should it prove that such authority and future state really exist. For what makes an agent ill-deserving is not any opinion he may have about a superior power, or positive sanctions; but his doing wrong, and acting contrary to the conviction of his mind. ‘What renders obnoxious to punishment, is not the fore-knowledge of it, but merely violating a known obligation.’
688 There is an objection to what has been now said of obligation, which deserves to be considered2 .—It may be asked, ‘Are there not many actions, of which it cannot be said, that we are bound to perform them, which yet are right to be performed; and the actual performance of which appears to us even more amiable, than if they had been strictly our duty; such as requital of good for evil, and acts of generosity and kindness?’
I answer, that allowing this, the most that can follow from it is, not that rectitude does not imply obligation, but that it does not imply it absolutely and universally, or so far as that there can be no sense in which actions arc denominated right, which does not carry in it obligation. The nature of rectitude may vary, according to the objects or actions to which it is ascribed. All right actions are not so in precisely the same sense; and it might, with little prejudice to what is above asserted, be granted, that some things are right in such a sense as yet not to be our indispensable duty. But then let it be remembered: That it holds universally and in-contestably, that whatever is right in such a sense, as that the omission of it would be wrong, is always and indispensably obligatory. And, in the next place, that though the idea of rightness may be more general than that of fitness, duty, or obligation; so that there may be instances to which we apply the one, but not the other; yet this cannot be said of wrong. The idea of this, and of obligation, are certainly of the same extent; I mean, that though there may be cases in which it cannot be said, that what we approve as right, ought to have been done; yet there are no cases in which it cannot be said, that what is wrong to be done, or omitted, ought not to be done or omitted.
689 But, not to dwell on this: It will be found on careful enquiry that the objection now mentioned does not require any such restrictions of what has been advanced as, at first sight, may appear to be necessary; and the following observations will, perhaps, shew this.
In the first place, Beneficence, in general, is undoubtedly a duty; and it is only with respect to the particular acts and instances of it that we are at liberty. A certain person, suppose, performs an act of kindness to another: We say, he might not have done it, or he was not obliged to do it; that is, he was not obliged to do this particular kind act. But to be kind in some instances or other; to do all the good he can to his fellow-creatures, every one is obliged; and we necessarily look upon that person as blame-worthy and guilty who aims not at this; but contents himself with barely abstaining from injury and mischief.* * * * * * *
690 Again; the precise limits of some general duties cannot be determined by us. No one can tell exactly to what degree he ought to be beneficent, and how far he is obliged to exert himself for the benefit of other men. No person, for instance, can determine accurately, how far, in many cases, his own good ought to give way to that of another, what number of distressed persons he ought to relieve, or what portion precisely of his fortune he ought to lay out in charity, or of his time and labour in direct endeavours to serve the publick.
In order to form a judgment in these cases, there are so many particulars to be considered in our own circumstances and abilities, and m the state of mankind and the world, that we cannot but be in some uncertainty. There are indeed degrees of defect and excess, which we easily and certainly see to be wrong: But there is a great variety of intermediate degrees, concerning which we cannot absolutely pronounce, that one of them rather than another ought to be chosen.—The same is true of the general duty of worshipping God.* * * * * * *
Whenever any degree of beneficence, or any particular circumstances and frequency of divine worship, or any behaviour in any possible instances, appear, all things considered, best; they become obligatory. It is impossible to put a case, in which we shall not be obliged to conform ourselves to the right of it, whatever that is. Even what, at any time, or in any circumstances, is, upon the whole, only more proper to be done, ought then to be done; and to suppose the contrary, would be to take away the whole sense and meaning of such an assertion.* * * * * * *
691 Having now given, what appears to me, the true account of the nature and foundation of moral good and evil and of moral obligation, I will add, as a supplement to this chapter, an examination of some of the forms of expression, which several eminent writers have used on this subject.
The meaning and design of these expressions will appear, after considering, that all actions being necessarily right, indifferent, or wrong; what determines which of these an action should be accounted is the truth of the case; or the relations and circumstances of the agent and the objects. In certain relations there is a certain conduct right. There are certain manners of behaviour which we unavoidably approve, as soon as these relations are known. Change the relations, and a different manner of behaviour becomes right. Nothing is clearer than that what is due or undue, proper or improper to be done, must vary according to the different natures and circumstances of beings. If a particular treatment of one nature is right; it is impossible that the same treatment of a different nature, or of all natures, should be right.
692 From hence arose the expressions, acting suitably to the natures of things; treating things as they are; conformity to truth; agreement and disagreement, congruity and incongruity between actions and relations. These expressions are of no use, and have little meaning, if considered as intended to define virtue; for they evidently presuppose it. Treating an object as being what it is, is treating it as it is right such an object should be treated. Conforming ourselves to truth means the same with conforming ourselves to the true state and relations we are m; which is the same with doing what such a state and such relations require, or what is right in them. In given circumstances, there is something peculiar and determinate best to be done; which, when these circumstances cease, ceases with them, and other obligations arise. This naturally leads us to speak of suiting actions to circumstances, natures, and characters; and of the agreement and repugnancy between them. Nor, when thus considered, is there any thing in such ways of speaking, not proper and intelligible. But, at the same time, it is very obvious, that they are only different phrases for right and wrong; and it is to be wished that those who have made use of them had attended more to this, and avoided the ambiguity and confusion arising from seeming to deny an immediate perception of morality without any deductions of reasoning; and from attempting to give definitions of words which admit not of them. Were any one to define pleasure, to be the agreement between a faculty and its object; what instruction would such a definition convey? Would it be amiss to ask, what this agreement is; and whether any thing be meant by it, different from the pleasure itself, which the object is fitted to produce by its influence on the faculty?
693 It is well known that Mr. Wollaston, in a work which has obtained great and just reputation, places the whole notion of moral good and evil in signifying and denying truth. Supposing his meaning to be, that all virtue and vice may be reduced to these particular instances of them; nothing can be more plain, than that it leaves the nature and origin of our ideas of them as much as ever undetermined: For it acquaints us not, whence our ideas of right in observing truth and wrong in violating it, arise; but supposes these to be perceptions of self-evident truths, as indeed they are, but not more so, than our ideas of the other principles of morality.—The evil of ingratitude and cruelty is not the same with that of denying truth, or affirming a lie: Nor can the formal ratio and notion of it (as Mr. Wollaston speaks) be justly said to consist in this; because there may be no intention to deny any thing true, or to produce an assent to any thing false. Ingratitude and cruelty would be wrong, though there were no rational creatures in the world besides the agent, and though he could have no design to declare a falshood; which is a quite distinct species of evil.—A person, who neglects the worship due to God, may have no thought of denying his existence, or of conveying any such opinion to others. It is true, he acts as if he did not exist, that is, in a manner which nothing else can justify, or which, upon any other supposition, is inexcuseable; and therefore, figuratively speaking, may be said to contradict truth, and to declare himself to be self-originated and self-sufficient1 . It is probable, this eminent writer meant in reality but little more than this; and the language he has introduced, I would not, by any means, be thought absolutely to condemn. All I aim at, is to guard against making a wrong application of it.
694 With the same view I must add, that when virtue is said to consist in conformity to the relations of persons and things; this must not be considered as a definition of virtue, or as intended to assign a reason justifying the practice of it. Nothing can be gained by such forms of expression, when used with these retentions: And, if we will consider why it is right to conform ourselves to the relations in which persons and objects stand to us; we shall find ourselves obliged to terminate our views in a simple perception, and something ultimately approved for which no justifying reason can be assigned.—Explaining virtue by saying, that it is the conformity of our actions to reason, is yet less proper; for this conformity signifying only, that our actions are such as our reason discerns to be right; it will be no more than saying, that virtue is doing right1 .
695 It should he further considered, that neither do these forms of expression direct us to proper criteria, by which we may be enabled to judge in all cases what is morally good or evil. For if, after weighing the state and circumstances of a case, we do not perceive how it is proper to act; it would be trifling to direct us, for this end, to consider what is agreeable to them. When, in given circumstances, we cannot determine what is right, we must be also equally unable to determine what is suitable to those circumstances. It is indeed very proper and just to direct us, in order to judge of an action, to endeavour to discover the whole truth with respect to its probable or possible consequences, the circumstances and qualifications of the object, and the relations of the agent; for this, as was before said, is what determines its moral nature; and no more can be intended by representing truth and relations as criteria of virtue.
696 ‘The language we are considering then expressing neither definitions nor proper criteria of virtue, of what use is it? and what is designed by it?’—I answer, that it is evidently designed to shew, that morality is founded in truth and reason; or that it is equally necessary and immutable, and perceived by the same power, with the natural proportions and essential differences of things.
‘But what, it may be again asked, is it more than bare assertion? What proof of this does it convey?’ In reply to this, it might be observed, that the same questions may be put to those who have maintained the contrary; and it is, I think, necessary they should better examine this subject before they consider it, as they do, a decided point, that our ideas of morality are derived from an arbitrary sense, and not ideas of the understanding.
697 The agreement of proportion between certain quantities, is real and necessary; and perceived by the understanding. Why should we doubt, whether the agreement of fitness also between certain actions and relations, is real and necessary, and perceived by the same faculty? From the different natures, properties, and positions of different objects result necessarily different relative fitnesses and unfitnesses; different productive powers; different aptitudes to different ends, and agreements or disagreements amongst themselves. What is there absurd or exceptional in saying, likewise, that from the various relations of beings and objects, there result different moral fitnesses and unfitnesses of action; different obligations of conduct; which are equally real and unalterable with the former, and equally independent of our ideas and opinions? For any particular natural objects to exist at all, and for them to exist with such and such mutual proportions, is the same. And, in like manner, for reasonable beings of particular natures and capacities to exist at all in such and such circumstances and relations, and for such and such conduct to be fit or proper is the same. And as the Author of nature, in creating the former, willed the proportions and truths implied in them to exist; so likewise, by the very act of creating the latter, and placing them in their respective relations to one another and to himself, he willed that such and such actions should be done, and such and such duties observed.—When we compare innocence and eternal misery, the idea of unsuitableness between them arises in our minds. And from comparing together many natural objects and beings, an idea of unsuitableness, likewise, but of a totally different kind, arises within us; that is, we perceive such a repugnancy between them, that the one cannot be made to correspond to the other; or, that their different properties cannot co-exist in the same subject; or, that they are not capable of producing such and such particular effects on one another. Why should one of these be taken to be less real than the other?—No one can avoid owning that he has the idea of unsuitableness; (that is, a sentiment of wrong) in the application of eternal misery to innocence. Let him, if he can, find out a reason for denying it to be a sentiment of his understanding, and a perception of truth.
698 To this purpose have the advocates for fitness, as the foundation of morality, argued. This, I think, has been the drift of their assertions and reasonings It must, however, be allowed, that they have, by too lax a use of words, given occasion for the objections of those who have embraced and defended the contrary opinion.
It would not be difficult to shew, how the like dispute might be raised about the original of our ideas of power and connexion, the like objections started, and the same embarrassment produced.
But it will better help to illustrate some of these remarks, and give a clearer view of the state of this controversy, if, for moral good and evil, we substitute equality and inequality, and suppose these to be the objects of enquiry. He that should derive our ideas of them from a sense, would be undoubtedly mistaken, if he meant any thing more, than that they were immediately perceived. And another, who, in opposition to this, should assert them to be founded on the natures and unalterable mutual respects and proportions of things; and to denote conformity to reason, or the agreement and disagreement, correspondency and repugnancy between different quantities; would as plainly assert the truth; though in language liable to be misunderstood, and really trifling, if designed to set aside an immediate power of perception in this case, and to define equality and inequality: Nor, in this view of such language, would any thing be more proper than to observe, how much more determinate it is to say, that the agreement between two quantities is their equality, than that their equality is the agreement between them. But how unreasonable would it be to conclude, as in the parallel case has been done, that therefore equality and inequality are perceived by an implanted sense, and not at all objects of knowledge?
OftheNatureandEssentialsofVirtueinPractice, as Distinguished from absoluteVirtue; and, thePrincipleofActionin a virtuousAgent.
699Before I enter on the discussion of the principal point to be considered in this chapter, it is necessary a distinction on which what will be said is founded, and to which I have before had occasion to refer, should be distinctly explained: I mean, the distinction of virtue into abstract or absolute virtue, and practical or relative virtue.* * * * * * *
Abstract virtue is, most properly, a quality of the external action or event. It denotes what an action is, considered independently of the sense of the agent; or what, in itself and absolutely, it is right such an agent, in such circumstances, should do; and what, if he judged truly, he would judge he ought to do.—Practical virtue, on the contrary, has a necessary relation to, and dependence upon, the opinion of the agent concerning his actions. It signifies what he ought to do, upon supposition of his having such and such sentiments.—In a sense, not entirely different from this, good actions have been by some divided into such as are materially good, and such as are formally so.—Moral agents are liable to mistake the circumstances they are in, and, consequently, to form erroneous judgments concerning their own obligations. This supposes, that these obligations have a real existence, independent of their judgments. But, when they are in any manner mistaken, it is not to be imagined, that then nothing remains obligatory; for there is a sense in which it may be said, that what any being, in the sincerity of his heart, thinks he ought to do, he indeed ought to do, and would be justly blame-able if he omitted to do, though contradictory to what, in the former sense, is his duty.—It would be trifling to object to this, that it implies, that an action may, at the same time, be both right and wrong; for it implies this only, as the rightness and wrongness of actions are considered in different views. A magistrate who should adjudge an estate to the person whose right it appears to be, upon a great overbalance of evidence, would certainly do right in one sense; though, should the opposite claimant, after all, prove to be the true proprietor, he would as certainly do wrong in another sense.* * * * * * *
700 These different kinds of rectitude have such an affinity that we are very prone to confound them in our thoughts and discourses; and a particular attention is necessary, in order to know when we speak of the one or the other. It is hardly possible, in writing on morality, to avoid blending them in our language, and frequently including both, even in the same sentence. But enough has been said to enable an attentive person to see when and how this is done, and to prepare the way for that explanation of the nature and essentials of practical Virtue, to which I shall now proceed.
701 What first of all offers itself here, is, that practical virtue supposes Liberty.—Whether all will acknowledge this or not, it cannot be omitted.
The liberty I here mean is the same with the power of acting and determining: And it is self-evident, that where such a power _s wanting, there can be no moral capacities. As far as it is true of a being that he acts, so far he must himself be the cause of the action, and therefore not necessarily determined to act. Let any one try to put a sense on the expressions; I will; I act; which is consistent with supposing, that the volition or action does not proceed from myself. Virtue supposes determination, and determination supposes a determiner; and a determiner that determines not himself, is a palpaple contradiction. Determination requires an efficient cause. If this cause is the being himself, I plead for no more. If not, then it is no longer his determination; that is, he is no longer the determiner, but the motive, or whatever else any one will say to be the cause of the determination. To ask, what effects our determinations, is the very same with asking who did an action, after being informed that such a one did it. In short; who must not feel the absurdity of saying, my volitions are produced by a foreign cause, that is, are not mine; I determine voluntarily, and yet necessarily?— We have, in truth, the same constant and necessary consciousness of liberty, that we have that we think, chuse, will, or even exist; and whatever to the contrary any persons may say, it is impossible for them in earnest to think they have no active, self-moving powers, and are not the causes of their own volitions, or not to ascribe to themselves, what they must be conscious they think and do.
702 But, not to enter much further into a question which has been strangely darkened by fallacious reasonings, and where there is so much danger of falling into a confusion of ideas, I would only observe, that it is hard to say what virtue and vice, commendation and blame, mean, if they do not suppose agency, free choice, and an absolute dominion over our resolutions.—It has always been the general, and it is evidently the natural sense of mankind, that they cannot be accountable for what they have no power to avoid. Nothing can be more glaringly absurd, than applauding or reproaching ourselves for what we were no more the causes of, than our own beings, and what it was no more possible for us to prevent, than the returns of the seasons, or the revolutions of the planets. The whole language of men, all their practical sentiments and schemes, and the whole frame and order of human affairs, are founded upon the notion of liberty, and are utterly inconsistent with the supposition, that nothing is made to depend on ourselves, or that our purposes and determinations are not subjected to our own command, but the result of physical laws, not possible to be resisted.
if, upon examination, any of the advocates of the doctrine of necessity should find, that what they mean by necessity is not inconsistent with the ideas of agency and self-determination, there will be little room for farther disputes; and that liberty, which I insist upon as essential to morality, will be acknowledged; nor will it be at all necessary to take into consideration, or to pay much regard to any difficulties relating to the nature of that influence we commonly ascribe to motives.
703 Secondly, Intelligence is another requisite of practical morality. Some degree of this is necessary to the perception of moral good and evil; and without this perception, there can be no moral agency. It must not be imagined, that liberty comprehends or infers intelligence; for all the inferior orders of beings possess true liberty. Self-motion and activity, of some kind, are essential to every conscious, living being. There seems no difference between wanting all spontaneity, and being quite inanimate.—But though liberty does not suppose intelligence, yet intelligence plainly supposes liberty. For what has been now affirmed of all sensitive natures, is much more unexceptionally true of intelligent natures. A thinking, designing, reasoning being, without liberty, without any inward, spontaneous, active, self-directing principle, is what no one can frame any idea of. So unreasonable are all objections to the making of free creatures; and so absurd to ask, why men were made so. But,
704 Thirdly, The main point now to be insisted on is, ‘that an agent cannot be justly denominated virtuous, except he acts from a consciousness of rectitude, and with a regard to it as his rule and end.’ Though this observation appears to me undoubtedly true, and of the greatest importance on this subject; yet I know there are many, whose assent to it will not be easily gained; and, therefore, it will be proper that I should endeavour particularly to explain and prove it.
Liberty and Reason constitute the capacity of virtue. It is the intention that gives it actual being in a character.—The reader must not here forget the distinction before explained. To mere theoretical virtue, or (if I may so speak) the abstract reasons and fitnesses of things, praise-worthiness is not applicable. It is the actual conformity of the wills of moral agents to what they see or believe to be the fitnesses of things, that is the object of our praise and esteem. One of these may, perhaps, very properly be called the virtue of the action, in contradistinction from the other, which may be called the virtue of the agent. To the former, no particular intention is requisite; for what is objectively right, may be done from any motive good or bad; and, therefore, from hence alone, no merit is communicated to the agent; nay, it is consistent with the greatest guilt. On the contrary, to the other the particular intention is what is most essential. When this is good, there is so far virtue, whatever is true of the matter of the action; for an agent, who does what is objectively wrong, may often be entitled to commendation.
705 It may possibly be of some advantage towards elucidating this matter, to conceive that only as, in strict propriety, done by a moral agent, which he intends to do. What arises beyond or contrary to his intention, however it may eventually happen, or be derived, by the connexion of natural causes, from his determination, should not be imputed to him. Our own determinations alone are, most properly, our actions. These alone we have absolute power over, and are responsible for. It is at least worth considering, in what different senses, we are said to do what we did, and what we did not design to do. The causality or efficiency implied in these cases, is certainly far from being the same.—There seems indeed scarcely any thing more evident, than that there are two views or senses, in which we commonly speak of actions. Sometimes we mean by them, the determinations or volitions themselves of a being, of which the intention is an essential part: And sometimes we mean the real event, or external effect produced. With respect to a being possessed of infinite knowledge and power, these are always coincident. What such a being designs and determines to do, is always the same with the actual event produced. But we have no reason to think this true of any inferior beings.
706 In further explaining and proving what I have now in view, it will be proper to shew, ‘that the perception of right and wrong does excite to action, and is alone a sufficient principle of action;’ after which we shall be better prepared for judging, ‘how far, without it, there can be practical virtue.’
Experience, and the reason of the thing, will, if we attentively consult them, soon satisfy us about the first of these points. All men continually feel, that the perception of right and wrong excites to action; and it is so much their natural and unavoidable sense that this is true, that there are few or none, who, upon having it at first proposed to them, would not wonder at its being questioned.* * * * * * *
707 But further, it seems extremely evident, that excitement belongs to the very ideas of moral right and wrong, and is essentially inseparable from the apprehension of them. The account in a former chapter of obligation, is enough to shew this.—When we are conscious that an action is fit to be done, or that it ought to be done, it is not conceivable that we can remain uninfluenced, or want a motive to action. It would be to little purpose to argue much with a person, who would deny this; or who would maintain, that the becomingness or reasonableness of an action is no reason for doing it; and the immorality or unreasonableness of an action, no reason against doing it. An affection or inclination to rectitude cannot be separated from the view of it1 . The knowledge of what is right, without any approbation of it, or concern to practise it, is not conceivable or possible. And this knowledge will certainly be attended with correspondent, actual practice, whenever there is nothing to oppose it. Why a reasonable being acts reasonably; why he has a disposition to follow reason, and is not without aversion to wrong; why he chuses to do what he knows he should do, and cannot be wholly indifferent, whether he abstains from that which he knows is evil and criminal, and not to be done, are questions which need not, and which deserve not to be answered.
Instincts, therefore, as before observed in other instances, are not necessary to the choice of ends. The intellectual nature is its own law. It has, within itself, a spring and guide of action which it cannot suppress or reject.* * * * * * *
708 It being therefore apparent that the determination of our minds concerning the nature of actions as morally good or bad, suggests a motive to do or avoid them; it being also plain that this determination of judgment, though often not the prevailing, yet is always the first, the proper, and most natural and intimate spring and guide of the actions of reasonable beings: Let us now enquire, whether it be not further the only spring of action in a reasonable being, as far as he can be deemed morally good and worthy; whether it be not the only principle from which all actions flow which engage our esteem of the agents; or, in other words, whether virtue be not itself the end of a virtuous agent as such.
709 If we consider that alone as most properly done by an agent, which he designs to do, and that what was no way an object of his design is not strictly imputable to him, or at least cannot give him any claim to merit or praise, it will follow that he cannot be properly said to practise virtue who does not design to practise it, to whom it is no object of regard, or who has it not at all in his view. It seems indeed as evident as we can wish any thing to be, that an action which is under no influence or direction from a moral judgment, cannot be in the practical sense moral; that when virtue is not pursued or intended, there is no virtue in the agent. Morally good intention, without any idea of moral good, is a contradiction. To act virtuously is to obey or follow reason: But can this be done without knowing and designing it?
710 I know, indeed, that according to the account some have given of virtue, it presupposes an intention in the agent different from that to itself, because, according to this account, it denotes only the emotion arising in us upon observing actions flowing from certain motives and affections, and, in the original constitution of natures, is applicable alike to actions flowing from any motives. Were this account true, it would be a gross fallacy to suppose that a sense of virtue and duty, or any regard to moral good, can ever influence to action. But this consequence cannot be regarded by one who believes not the opinion which implies it; nor is it with me a small objection to this opinion, that such a consequence arises from it.
711 If a person can justly be styled virtuous and praise worthy, when he never reflects upon virtue, and the reason of his acting is not taken from any consideration of it, intelligence certainly is not necessary to moral agency, and brutes are full as capable of virtue and moral merit as we are.—Besides, might not a person with equal reason be reckoned publick spinted, who without any view to publick good, should accidentally make a discovery that enriches his country? May not that course of behaviour be as well styled ambitious, to which the love of honour and power did not excite; or that selfish, which did not aim at private interest; or that friendly, which was attended with no friendly intention?* * * * * * *
712 But it may be asked, ‘is not Benevolence a virtuous principle? And do we not approve all actions proceeding from it?’—I answer, Benevolence, it has been shewn, is of two kinds, rational and instinctive. Rational benevolence entirely coincides with rectitude, and the actions proceeding from it, with the actions proceeding from a regard to rectitude. And the same is to be said of all those affections and desires, which would arise in a nature as intelligent. It is not possible that endeavours to obtain an end which, as reasonable, we cannot but love and chuse, should not be by reason approved; or that what is necessarily desirable to all beings, should not be also necessarily right to be pursued.
But instinctive benevolence is no principle of virtue, nor are any actions flowing merely from it virtuous. As far as this influences, so far something else than reason and goodness influence, and so much I think is to be subtracted from the moral worth of any action or character. This observation agrees perfectly with the common sentiments and determinations of mankind. Wherever the influence of mere natural temper or inclination appears, and a particular conduct is known to proceed from hence, we may, it is true, love the person, as we commonly do the inferior creatures when they discover mildness and tractableness of disposition; but no regard to him as a virtuous agent will arise within us.* * * * * * *
713 Actions proceeding from universal, calm, and dispassionate benevolence, are by all esteemed more virtuous and amiable than actions producing equal or greater moments of good, directed to those to whom nature has more particularly linked us, and arising from kind determinations in our minds which are more confined and urgent. The reason is, that in the former case the operations of instinct have less effect, and are less sensible, and the attention to what is morally good and right is more explicit and prevalent. Were we prompted to the acts of universal benevolence in the same manner that parents are to the care of their children, we should not conceive of them as more virtuous, These facts cannot be explained consistently with the notion, that virtue consists in acting from kind affections which cannot be derived from intelligence, and are incapable, in their immediate exercise, of being attended with any influence from it. For why then should not the virtue be greatest where the kind impulse is strongest? Why should it, on the contrary, in such a case, be least of all, and entirely vanish, when all use of reason is precluded, and nothing but the force of instinct appears? Why, in particular, should resisting our strongest instincts, and following steadily in contradiction to them1 , the determinations of cool unbiassed reason, be considered as the very highest virtue? Probably, those who plead for this opinion would give it up, and acknowledge what is now asserted, could they be convinced that benevolence is essential to intelligence, and not merely an implanted principle or instinct.
All these observations may very justly be applied to self-love. Reasonable and calm self-love, as well as the love of mankind, is entirely a virtuous principle. They are both parts of the idea of virtue. Where this is greatest, there will be the most ardent and active benevolence, and likewise the greatest degree of true prudence, the highest concern about bettering ourselves to the utmost, and the most effectual and constant pursuit of private happiness and perfection, in opposition to whatever hindrances and temptations to neglect them may be thrown in our way.* * * * * * *
If any person wants to be convinced, that this is a just representation of Dr. Hutcheson's sentiments, her need only read his Illustrations on the Moral Sense, and particularly the fourth section at the conclusion. See also a Note at the end of the first of Mr. Hume's Philosophical Essays.
It should be considered, that the phrase foundation of virtue has the different significations of an account or origin of virtue; of a consideration or principle inferring and proving it in particular cases; and of a motive to the practice of it: and that it is here used in the first of these senses only. See the beginning of the last Chapter in the Second Part.
The reader is desired to remember, that by ideas, I mean here almost constantly simple ideas, or original and uncompounded perceptions of the mind. That our ideas of right and wrong are of this sort, will be particularly observed hereafter. It may also be right to take notice, that I all along speak of the understanding, in the most confined and proper sense of it. What gives occasion for observing this, is the division which has been made by some writers, of all the powers of the soul into understanding and will; the former comprehending under it, all the powers of external and internal sensation, as well as those of judging and reasoning; and the latter, all the affections of the mind, as well as the power of acting and determining.
See Dr. Cudworth's Treatise of eternal and immutable Morality, Book IV. Chap. 2, where he observes, that the mind perceives, by occasion of outward objects, and much more than is represented to it by sense, as a learned man perceives in the best written book, more than an illiterate person or brute.
Most of these observations concerning the difference between sense and knowledge, may be found in Plato's Theœtetus; and in the Treatise quoted in the last note.
Several observations to this purpose are made by Malebranche, who (‘tis well known) has maintained, that nothing in nature is ever the proper cause or efficient of another, but only the occasion; the Deity, according to him, being the sole agent in all effects and events. But Mr. Hume has more particularly insisted on the observation here made, with a very different view. See his Phil. Essays.
The conviction produced by experience is built on the same principle with that which assures us, that there must be a cause of every event, and some account of whatever happens. The frequent repetition of a particular event, as of the falling of a heavy body to the earth, produces an expectation of its happening again in future trials: Because we see intuitively, that there being some reason or cause of this constancy of event, it must be derived from a cause regularly and constantly operating in given circumstances. In the very same manner, and upon the same principle, we should conclude, upon observing a particular number on a die thrown very often without one failure, that it would be thrown also in any succeeding trial: And the more frequently and uninterruptedly we knew this had happened, the stronger would be our expectation of its happening again, because the more evident would it be, that either all the sides of the die were marked with the same number, or that some art was used in throwing it, or that there was something in the constitution of it that disposed it to turn up that particular side, rather than any other.—However strange it may appear, it is probably true, that what occasions the doubts and difficulties which are raised about this, and some other points of the clearest nature, is their being self-evident; and that what is meant by saying, that it is not is reason that informs us there must be some account of whatever comes to pass, and some established causes of constant and uniform events, or that order and regularity can proceed only from design, must be, that they are not subjects of deduction; that is, that they are so plain, that there is nothing plainer from which they can be inferred.
 According to Dr. Cudworth, abstract ideas are implied in the cognoscitive power of the mind; which, he says, contains in itself virtually (as the future plant or tree is contained in the seed) general notions of all things, which are exerted by it, or unfold and discover themselves as occasions invite and proper circumstances occur. This, no doubt, many will very freely condemn as whimsical and extravagant. I have, I own, a different opinion of it; but yet, I should not care to be obliged to defend it. It is what he thought, Plato meant by making all knowledge to be Reminiscence; and in this, as well as other respects, he makes the human mind to resemble the Divine; to which the ideas and comprehension of all things are essential, and not to be derived from any foreign source.
We find Socrates, to the like effect, in Thaetet. (after observing, that it cannot be any of the powers of sense that compares the perceptions of all the senses, and apprehends the general affections of things, and particularly identity, number, similitude, dissimilitude, equality, inequality, to which he adds, καλδον και αισ Χρόν) asserting, that this power is reason, or the soul acting by itself separately from matter, and independently of any corporeal impressions or passions; and that, consequently, in opposition to Protagoras, knowledge is not to be sought for in sense, but in this superior part of the soul.
See Mr. Hume's Treatise of Human Nature and Philosophical Essays.
It will be observed presently, that the ancient sceptics asserted universally there could be no such thing as error; and for the very reason here assigned.
Moral right and wrong, and moral obligation or duty, must remain, or vanish together. They necessarily accompany one another, and make but as it were one idea. As far as the former are fictitious and imaginary, the latter must be so too. This connexion or coincidence between moral rectitude and obligation will be at large considered hereafter.
Nor ourselves neither; for to exist, and to be perceived, being the same, perceptions themselves can have no existence, unless there can be perceptions of perceptions in infinitum. Besides, by this system, the only idea of what we call ourselves is the contradictory and monstrous one of a series of successive and separable perceptions, not one of which continues, that is, exists at all; and without any substance that perceives—It might be further remarked; that the very scheme that takes away the distinction between past and future, and admits of no real existence independent of perception, is itself derived from and founded upon the supposition of the contrary; I mean, the supposition that there have been past impressions, of which all ideas are copies; and that certain objects have been observed to have been conjoined in past instances, and by this means produced that customary transition of the imagination from one of them to the other, in which reasoning is said to consist. It would have been abusing the reader to mention these extravagancies, had not some of them been started by Bishop Berkeley; and his principles adopted and pursued to a system of scepticism, that plainly includes them all, by another writer of the greatest talents, to whom I have often had occasion to refer. See Treatise of Human Nature, and Philosophical Essays, by Mr. Hume.
The virtue of an action, Mr. Hume says, is its pleasing us after a particular manner. Treatise of Human Nature, Vol. iii.
See Mr. Balguy's Tracts on the Foundation of Moral Goodness.
We have the ideas of greater decency and dignity in some pleasures than in others; as, in the pleasures of the imagination or the understanding, when compared with those of the bodily senses. Dr. Hutcheson, after observing this, seems uncertain whether it ought to be ascribed to a constant opinion of innocence in the former pleasures; which would reduce the preference we give them, as he says, to the moral sense; or whether there be not in these cases a different sort of perceptions to be reckoned another class of sensations. See Treatise of the Passions, Sect. 1. Art. 1.
See Mr. Abernethy's Sermons, Vol. II. p. 219.
‘The very idea of happiness or enjoyment, (as Dr. Butler says) is this, an appetite or affection having its object.’ See Sermons preached at the Rolls’ chapel.
'Αιδι νοητά, in Plato's language.
See the second section of the first chapter.
It is obvious, that this is very different from saying (what it would be plainly absurd to say) that every action, the performance of which in certain circumstances is wrong, will continue wrong, let the circumstances be ever so much altered, or by whatever authority it is commanded.
Mr. Balguy. See his tracts on the foundation of moral goodness and the law of truth.
‘The whole force of obligation (says Bishop Cumberland in his treatise of the laws of nature, chap. v. sect.(ii.) is this, that the legislator hath annexed to the observance of his laws, good, to the transgression evil; and those natural: In prospect whereof men are moved to perform actions, rather agreeing than disagreeing with the laws.’—Ibid. sect. 27. I think that moral obligation may be thus universally and properly defined. Obligation is that act of a legislator, by which he declares that actions conformable to his law are necessary a those for whom the law is made. An action is then understood to be necessary to a rational agent, when it is certainly one of the causes necessarily required to that happiness, which he naturally and consequently necessarily desires.’—Again, sect. xxxv. ‘I cannot conceive any thing which could bind the mind of man with any necessity (in which Justinian's definition places the force of obligation) except arguments proving, that good or evil will proceed from our actions.’
See Dr. Warburton's Divine Legation, Vol. I. page 50.
Illustrations on the Moral Sense. Sect. 1.
The reason of adding this restriction is this. A man may, through involuntary error, approve of doing what he ought not to do, or think that to be his duty, which is really contrary to it; and yet it is too, in this case, really his duty to act agreeably to his judgment.—There are then two views of obligation, which, if not attended to, will be apt to produce confusion.—In one sense, a man's being obliged to act in a particular manner depends on his knowing it; and in another sense, it does not. Was not the former true, we might be contracting guilt, when acting with the fullest approbation of our consciences: And was not the latter true, it would not be sense ever to speak of shewing another what his obligations are, or how it is incumbent upon him to act.—This entirely coincides with the distinction of virtue into absolute and relative, hereafter to be explained, Chap. VIII.
I observe that Dr. Adams, in an excellent Sermon on the Nature and Obligation of Virtue, agrees with me in the account he gives of obligation.—To the question, in what does the obligation to virtue and right action consist? he answers, ‘that right implies duty in its idea: that to perceive an action to be right, is to see a reason for doing it in the action itself, abstracted from all other considerations whatsoever; and that this perception, this acknowledged rectitude in the action, is the very essence of obligation, that which commands the approbation and choice, and binds the conscience of every rational being.’
I have not here copied Dr. Butler, but given the sense of his observations in other words. See the Preface to his sermons.
See Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Part I. Essay ii Chap. 3.
How plain is it here, that the very thing that gives ground for the application of this language in this instance, is our perceiving, antecedently to this application, that such a manner of acting, in such circumstances, is wrong? The same is true in all other instances: Nor, independently of this perception, could we ever know when to say, that an action affirms or denies truth. How then does such language explain and define right and wrong?
the same purpose Dr. Adams has observed, ‘That when virtue is said to consist in a conformity to truth; in acting agreeably to the truth of the case; to the reason, truth, or fitness of things; there is, if not impropriety, something of obscurity or inaccuracy in the expression; and that the only meaning of such expressions will, in all oases, be found to be this; acting according to what reason, in the present circumstances of the agent, and the relations he stands in to the objects before him, pronounces to be right.’—‘Truth’ (as he elsewhere says) ‘is a term of wider extent than right. The characters of wisdom or prudence, of skill in any art or profession, are, as well of virtue, founded in a regard to truth, and imply the acting agreeably to the nature and reason of things; yet are these ideas certainly distinct from that of goodness, or moral rectitude. The man, who builds according to the principles of geometry, acts as agreeably to truth, and he who should transgress the rules of architecture, as much violates truth, as he who acts agreeably to the duty of gratitude, or contrary to it. But, in the former of these instances, the conformity to truth is not virtue but skill: the deflection from it is not vice, but ignorance or folly.’—To these observations may be added, that to act agreeably to the character of an oppressor, or tyrant, is, in no improper sense, to act viciously; to injure and to destroy. So vague and loose is this way of speaking, and so liable to objections, when used to define and explain virtue.
Those who own, that an action may not be less right, though certain to produce no overbalance of private pleasure; and yet assert that nothing, but the prospect of this to be obtained, can influence the will, must also maintain, that the mere rightness of an action, or the consideration that it is fit to be done, apart from the consideration of the pleasure attending or following it, would leave as quite uninclined, and indifferent to the performance or omission of it. This is so inconceivable, that those whose principles oblige them to admit it, cannot, one would think, really mean by right and wrong the same with the rest of mankind. That, supposing virtue to denote any thing distinct from pleasure and independent of it, it is possible to conceive, that a virtuous action may not produce an overbalance of private pleasure; or, which answers the purpose as well, that an agent may believe this of an action to be done by him, which yet he does not the less consider as virtuous, it would be trifling to say any thing to prove: But this it is necessary those, whose opinion I have now in view, should deny.
More to this purpose has been said by Mr. Balguy, in his Tract on the Foundation of Moral Goodness.