Front Page Titles (by Subject) JOHN BROWN On the Motives to Virtue - British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2
Return to Title Page for British Moralists, being Selections from Writers principally of the Eighteenth Century, vol. 2
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
JOHN BROWN On the Motives to Virtue - 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.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
JOHN BROWN On the Motives to Virtue
[Reprinted from the first edition, 1751.]
737There are few among Mankind, who have not been often struck with Admiration at the Sight of that Variety of Colours and Magnificence of Form, which appear in an Evening Rainbow. The uninstructed in Philosophy consider that splendid Object, not as dependent on any other, but as being possessed of a self-given and original Beauty. But he who is led to know, that its Place and Appearance always varies with the Situation of the Sun; that when the latter is in his Meridian, the former becomes an inconsiderable Curve skirting the Horizon; that as the Sun descends, the Rainbow rises; till at the Time of his Setting, it encompasses the Heavens with a glorious Circle, yet dies away when he disappears; the Enquirer is then convinced, that this gay Meteor did but shine with a borrowed Splendor, derived from the Influence of that mighty Luminary.
Thus, in like Manner, though the Beauty, Fitness, Truth, or Virtue, of all those Actions which we term morally Good, seem at first View to reside in the several Actions, in an original and independent Manner; yet on a nearer Scrutiny we shall find, that, properly speaking, their Nature ariseth from their Ends and Consequences; that as these vary, the Nature of the several Actions varies with them; that from these alone, Actions gain their Splendor, are denominated morally Good, and give us the Ideas of Beauty, Fitness, Truth, or Virtue.
738 The first Proofs in Support of this Opinion shall be drawn from those very Writers who most zealously oppose it. And here ‘tis first remarkable, that ‘while they attempt to fix their several Criterions of absolute, independent Beauty, Fitness, and Truth; they are obliged to admit Exceptions, which effectually destroy what they design to establish.’ The following Instance_ from one of these celebrated Writers, is equally applicable to the other two.
Mr. Wollaston speaks in the following Manner: ‘To talk to a Post, or otherwise treat it as if it was a Man, would surely be reckoned an Absurdity, if not Distraction. Why? Because this is to treat it as being what it is not. And why should not the converse be reckoned as bad; that is, to treat a Man as a Post? As if he had no Sense, and felt not Injuries which he doth feel; as if to him Pain and Sorrow were not Pain; Happiness not Happiness1 .’ Now, you see that on his Scheme of absolute irrelative Truth, the Absurdity of talking to a Post is precisely of the same Nature with that of injuring a Man: For in both Cases, we treat the Post and the Man, as being what they are not. Consequently, on this Philosophy, if it be morally Evil to injure a Man, ‘tis likewise morally Evil to talk to a Post. Not that I suppose Mr. Wollaston would have maintained this Consequence. He knew that the First of these Absurdities would only deserve the Name of Folly; the latter, of a Crime. As therefore he allows that Truth is equally violated in either Case; as there is something highly immoral in the one, and nothing immoral in the other, here is an Exception which overturns his Principle: which proves that the Morality or Immorality of Actions depends on something distinct from mere abstract, irrelative Truth.
739 The same Exception must be admitted on Dr. Clarke's System of Expression. For sure, ‘tis neither fit nor reasonable, nor agreeable to the Relations of Things, that a Man should talk to a Post. Yet, although it be admitted as irrational and absurd, I do not imagine, any of Dr. Clarke's Defenders would say it was immoral. So again, with regard to Lord Shaftesbury, ‘tis clear there can be nothing of the Sublime or Beautiful in this Action of talking to a Post: On the contrary, there is (to use his own Manner of Expression) an apparent Indecency, Impropriety, and Dissonance in it. Yet, although his Admirers might justly denominate it incongruous, they would surely be far from branding it as vile. Here then the same Exception again takes place, which demonstrates that Virtue cannot consist either in abstract Fitness or Beauty; but that something further is required in order to constitute its Nature.
740 Possibly therefore, the Patrons of these several Theories may alledge, that Actions which relate to inanimate Beings only, can properly be called no more than naturally beautiful, fit, or true: But that moral Fitness, Beauty, or Truth, can only arise from such Actions as relate to Beings that are sensible or intelligent. Mr. Balguy expressly makes this Exception: He affirms, that ‘moral Actions are such as are knowingly directed towards some Object intelligent or sensible1 .’
And so far indeed this Refinement approaches towards the Truth, as it excludes all inanimate Things from being the Objects of moral Good and Evil. Yet even this Idea of moral Beauty, Fitness, or Truth, is highly indeterminate and defective: Because innumerable Instances may be given, of Actions directed towards Objects sensible and intelligent, some of which Actions are manifestly becoming, fit, or true, others as manifestly incongruous, irrational, and false, yet none of them, in any Degree, virtuous or vicious, meritorious or immoral. Thus to speak to a Man in a Language he understands, is an Action becoming, fit, or true; ‘tis treating him according to the Order, Relations, and Truth of Things; ‘tis treating him according to what he is. On the contrary, to speak to him in a Language he understands not, is an Action neither becoming, fit, nor true; ‘tis treating him according to what he is not; ‘tis treating him as a Post. But although the first of these Actions be undeniably becoming, fit, or true, who will call it Virtue? And though the latter be undeniably incongruous, irrational, and false, who will call it Vice? Yet both these Actions are directed towards a Being that is sensible and intelligent. It follows therefore, that an Action is not either morally Good or Evil, merely because it is conformable to the Beauty, Fitness, or Truth of Things, even though it be directed towards an Object both sensible and intelligent; but that something still further, some more distinguishing and characteristic Circumstance is necessary, in order to fix its real Essence.
741 What this peculiar Circumstance may be, we come now to enquire.* * * * * * *
And first, though the noble Writer every where attempts to fix an original, independent, moral Beauty of Action, to which every thing is to be referred, and which itself is not to be referred to any thing further2 : Yet when he comes to an Enumeration of those particular Actions, which may be called morally Beautiful, he always singles out such as have a direct and necessary Tendency to the Happiness of Mankind. Thus he talks of the Notion of a public Interest2 , as necessary towards a proper Idea of Virtue: He _peaks of public Affection in the same Manner; and reckons Generosity’, Kindness, and Compassion, as the Qualities which alone can render Mankind truly Virtuous. So again, when he fixes the Bounds of the social Affections, he evidently refers us to the same End of human Happiness. ‘If Kindness or Love of the most natural Sort be immoderate, it is undoubtedly vicious. For thus over-great Tenderness destroys the Effect of Love; and excessive Pity renders us incapable of giving Succour3 .’ When he fixes the proper Degrees of the private Affections, he draws his Proof from this one Point, ‘ that by having the Self-Passions too intense or strong, a Creature becomes miserable4 .’ Lastly, when he draws a Catalogue of such Affections, as are most opposite to Beauty and moral Good, he selects ‘Malice, Hatred of Society– Tyranny–Anger–Revenge-Treachery—Ingratitude5 .’ In all these Instances, the Reference to human Happiness is so particular and strong, that from these alone an unprejudiced Mind may be convinced, that the Production of human Happiness is the great universal Fountain, whence our Actions derive their moral Beauty.
742 Thus again, though the excellent Dr. Clarke attempts to fix the Nature and Essence of Virtue in certain Differences, Relations, and Fitnesses of Things, to which our Actions ought ultimately to be referred; yet in enumerating the several Actions which he denominates morally Good, he mentions none, but what evidently promote the same great End, _ the Happiness of Man.’ He justly speaks of the Welfare of the Whole, as being the necessary and most important Consequence of virtuous Action. He tells us, “that it is more fit that God should regard the Good of the whole Creation, than that he should make the Whole continually miserable: That all Men should endeavour to promote the universal Good and Welfare of all; than that all Men should be continually contriving the Ruin and Destruction of all1 .’ Here again, the Reference is so direct and strong to the Happiness of Mankind, that even from the Instances alledged by the worthy Author, it appears, that a Conformity of our Actions to this great End, is the very Essence of moral Rectitude.
743 Mr. Wollaston is no less explicit in this particular: For in every Instance he brings, the Happiness of Man is the single End to which his Rule of Truth verges in an unvaried Manner. Thus in the Passage already cited, though he considers the talking to a Post as an Absurdity he is far from condemning it as an immoral Action: But in the same Paragraph, when he comes to give an Instance of the Violation of moral Truth, he immediately has recourse to Man; and not only so, but to the Happiness of Man. ‘Why, saith he, should not the converse be reckoned as bad; that is, to treat a Man as a Post; as if he had no Sense, and felt not Injuries, which he doth feel; as if to him Pain and Sorrow were not Pain; Happiness not Happiness?’ At other Times he affirms, that ‘the Importance of the Truths on the one and the other Side should be diligently compared2 .’ And I would gladly know, how one Truth can be more important than another, unless upon this Principle, and in Reference to the Production of Happiness. Himself indeed confirms this Interpretation, when he speaks as follows: ‘The Truth violated in the former ease was, B had a Property in that which gave him such a Degree of Happiness: That violated in the latter was, B had a Property in that which gave him a Happiness vastly superior to the other: The Violation therefore in the latter Case was upon this Account a vastly greater Violation than in the former3 .’
744 These Evidences may seem sufficient: But that all possible Satisfaction may be given in a Circumstance which is of the greatest Weight in the present Question, these further Observations may be added.
As therefore these celebrated Writers give no Instances of moral Beauty, Fitness, or Truth, but what finally relate to the Happiness of Man; so, if we appeal to the common Sense of Mankind, we shall see that the Idea of Virtue hath never been universally affixed to any Action or Affection of the Mind, unless where this Tendency to produce Happiness was at least apparent. What are all the black Catalogues of Vice or moral Turpitude, which we read in History, or find in the Circle of our own Experience, what are they but so many Instances of Misery produced? And what are the fair and amiable Atchievments of Legislators, Patriots, and Sages renowned in Story, what but so many Efforts to raise Mankind from Misery, and establish the public Happiness on a sure Foundation? The first are vicious, immoral, deformed, because there we see Mankind afflicted or destroyed: The latter are virtuous, right, beautiful, because here we see Mankind preserved and assisted.
745 But that Happiness is the last Criterion or Test, to which the moral Beauty, Truth, or Rectitude of our Affections is to be referred, the two following Circumstances demonstrate: First, ‘those very Affections and Actions, which, in the ordinary Course of Things, are approved as virtuous, do change their Nature, and become vicious in the strictest Sense, when they contradict this fundamental Law, of the greatest publick Happiness.’ Thus, although in general it is a Parent's Duty to prefer a Child's Welfare, to that of another Person, yet, if this natural and just Affection gain such Strength, as to tempt the Parent to violate the Public for his Child's particular Welfare; what was before a Duty, by this becomes immoderate and criminal.* * * * * * *
746 Secondly, with such uncontrouled Authority does this great Principle command us; that ‘Actions, which are in their own Nature most shocking to every humane Affection, lose at once their moral Deformity, when they become subservient to the general Welfare; and assume both the Name and the Nature of Virtue? For what is more contrary to every gentle and kind Affection, that dwells in the human Breast, than to shed the Blood, or destroy the Life of Man? Yet the ruling Principle above-mentioned, can reconcile us even to this. And when the Necessity of public Example compels us to make a Sacrifice of this Kind; though we may lament the Occasion, we cannot condemn the Fact: So far are we from branding it as Murder, that we approve it as Justice: and always defend it on this great Principle alone, that it was necessary for the public Good.
747 Thus it appears, that those Actions which we denominate Virtuous, Beautiful, Fit, or True, have not any absolute and independent, but a relative and reflected Beauty: And that their Tendency to produce Happiness is the only Source from whence they derive their Lustre. Hence therefore we may obtain a just and adequate Definition of Virtue: Which is no other than ‘the1 Conformity of our Affections with the public Good:’ Or ‘the voluntary Production of the greatest Happiness.’* * * * * * *
748Having at length gained an adequate Idea of Virtue, and found that it is no other than ‘the voluntary Production of the greatest public Happiness;’ we may now safely proceed to consider, ‘what are the Motives by which Mankind can be induced to the Practice of it?’* * * * * * *
And as it hath already been made evident, that the Essence of Virtue consists in a Conformity of our Affections and Actions, with the greatest public Happiness; so it will now appear, that ‘the only Reason or Motive, by which Individuals can possibly be induced to the Practice of Virtue, must be the Feeling immediate, or the Prospect of future private Happiness.’
Doubtless, the noble Writer's Admirers will despise and reject this, as an unworthy Maxim. For so it hath happened, that in the Height of their Zeal, for supporting his Opinions, they generally stigmatize private Happiness, as a Thing scarce worth a wise Man's inquiring after. Indeed, the many ambiguous Phrases of their Master have contributed not a little to this vulgar Error.* * * * * * *
749 Now ere we proceed further, it may be necessary to remark, that in some Degree there hath been a Strife about Words in this Particular too. For these Expressions of Selfishness and Disinterestedness have been used in a very loose and indeterminate Manner. In one Sense a Motive is called disinterested; when it consists in a pure benevolent Affection, or a Regard to the moral Sense. In another, no Motive is disinterested: For even in acting according to these Impulses of Benevolence and Conscience, we gratify an Inclination, and act upon the Principle or immediate Feeling of private Happiness. Thus when we say,’ We love Virtue for Virtue's Sake;’ ‘tis only implied, that we find immediate Happiness from the Love and Practice of Virtue, without Regard to external or future Consequences.
750 Another Source of mutual Misapprehension on this Subject hath been ‘ the Introduction of metaphorical Expressions instead of proper ones.’ Nothing is so common among the Writers on Morality, as ‘the Harmony of Virtue’–‘the Proportion of Virtue.’ So the noble Writer frequently expresseth himself. But his favourite Term, borrowed indeed from the Ancients, is ‘the Beauty of Virtue.’—Quae si videri posset, mirabiles excitaret amores1 .—Of this our Author and his Followers, especially the most ingenious of them2 , are so enamoured, that they seem utterly to have forgot they are talking in Metaphor, when they describe the Charms of this sovereign Fair. Insomuch, that an unexperienced Person, who should read their Encomiums, would naturally fall into the Mistake of him, who asked the Philosopher, ‘Whether the Virtues were not living Creatures3 ?’ Now this figurative Manner, so essentially interwoven into philosophical Disquisition, hath been the Occasion of great Error. It tends to mislead us both with regard to the Nature of Virtue, and our Motives to the Practice of it. For first, it induceth a Persuasion, that Virtue is excellent without Regard to any of its Consequences: And secondly, that he must either want Eyes, or common Discernment) who doth not at first Sight fall in Love with this matchless Lady.
Therefore setting aside, as much as may be, all ambiguous Expressions, it seems evident, that ‘ a Motive, from its very Nature, must be something that affects ourself.’ If any Man hath found out a Kind of Motive which doth not affect himself, he hath made a deeper Investigation into the ‘Springs, Weights, and Balances’ of the human Heart, than I can pretend to. Now what can possibly affect ourself, or determine us to Action) but either the Feeling or Prospect of Pleasure or Pain, Happiness or Misery?
751 But to come to the direct Proof: ‘Tis evident, even to Demonstration, that no Affection can, in the strict Sense, be more or less selfish or disinterested than another; because, whatever be its Object, the Affection itself is still no other than a Mode either of Pleasure or of Pain; and is therefore equally to be referred to the Mind or Feeling of the Patient, whatever be its external Occasion. Indeed, a late Writer of Subtilty and Refinement hath attempted to make a Distinction here. He says, ‘It hath been observed, that every Act of Virtue or Friendship is attended with a secret Pleasure; from whence it hath been concluded, that Friendship and Virtue could not be disinterested. But the Fallacy of this is obvious. The virtuous Sentiment or Passion produces the Pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a Pleasure in doing good to my Friend, because I love him: but I do not love him for the Sake of that Pleasure1 .’ Now to me, the Fallacy of this is obvious. For in Fact, neither the Passion, nor the Pleasure, are either the Cause or the Consequence of each other; they neither produce nor arise from each other; because, in Reality, they are the same Thing under different Expressions. This will be clear, if we state the Case as follows: ‘To love my Friend, is to feel a Pleasure in doing him Good:’ And conversely; ‘to feel a Pleasure in doing Good to my Friend, is to love him.’ Where ‘tis plain that the Terms are synonymous. The Pleasure therefore is the very Passion itself; and neither prior nor posterior to it, as this Gentleman supposeth.* * * * * * *
752 The Reasons why the great universal Principle of private Happiness hath not been so clearly seen in the Benevolent, as in the Self-Passions, seem to be these. First, Ambiguous Expressions, such as have been remarked above. 2dly, Perhaps some Degree of Pride, and Affectation of Merit; because Merit seems to appear in what is called Disinterest. 3dly, And perhaps principally, because in the Exercise of the benevolent Passions, the Happiness is essentially concomitant with the Passion itself, and therefore is not easily separated from it by the Imagination, so as to be considered as a distinct End. Whereas in the Passions called Selfish, the Happiness sought after is often unattainable, and therefore easily and necessarily distinguished by the Imagination as a positive End. This Circumstance of Union however, as is judiciously remarked by one of the noble Writer's Followers1 , proves the great Superiority and Excellence of the benevolent Affections, considered as a Source of Happiness, beyond the Passions and Appetites, commonly called the Selfish.
753 But although these Observations be necessary, in order to clear up an Affair, which hath been much perplexed with philosophical, or unphilosophical Refinements; yet, on a closer Examination, it will appear, in the most direct Manner, from the noble Writer himself, that’ there is no other Principle of human Action, but that of the immediate or foreseen Happiness of the Agent:’ That all these amusing Speculations concerning the Comely, Fit, and Decent; all these verbal Separations between Pleasure, Interest, Beauty, and Good, might have been sunk in one precise and plain Disquisition, concerning such Actions and Affections as yield a lasting, and such as afford only a short and transient Happiness. For thus, after all, his Lordship explains himself: ‘That Happiness is to be pursued, and, in Fact, is always sought after; that the Question is not, who loves himself, and who not; but who loves and serves himself the rightest, and after the truest Manner.—That ‘tis the Height of Wisdom, no doubt, to be rightly Selfish’—‘Even to leave Family, Friends, Country, and Society—in good Earnest, who would not, ff it were Happiness to do so2 ?’
These Expressions are so strongly pointed, as to leave no further Doubt concerning the noble Writer's Sentiments on this Subject. Indeed, they are the natural Dictates of common Sense, unsophisticated with false Philosophy. In every subsequent Debate therefore, wherein his Lordship's Opinions are concerned, we may safely build on this as an acknowledged and sure Foundation, ‘that the Motives of Man to the Practice of Virtue, can only arise from a Sense of his present, or a Prospect of his future Happiness.
754 Now this Conclusion will carry us to another Question of a very interesting and abstruse Nature: That is, ‘How far, and upon what Foundation, the uniform Practice of Virtue, is really and clearly connected with the Happiness of every Individual?’ For so far, as we have seen, and no further, can every Individual be naturally moved to the Practice of it.
755 This is evidently a Question of Fact: And as it relates to the Happiness of Man, can only be determined by appealing to his Constitution. If this be indeed uniform and invariable; that is, if every Individual hath the same Perceptions, Passions, and Desires; then indeed the Sources of Happiness must be similar and unchangeable. If, on the contrary, different Men be differently constituted; if they have different Perceptions, Passions, and Desires; then must the Sources of their Happiness be equally various.
It should seem therefore, that ‘while Moralists have been enquiring into human Happiness, they have generally considered it, as arising from one uniform and particular Source, instead of tracing it up to those various Fountains whence it really springs; which are indefinitely various, combined, and indeterminable.’ And this seems to have been the most general Foundation of Error.
756 If we speak with Precision, there are but three Sources in Man, of Pleasure and Pain, Happiness and Misery: These are Sense, Imagination, and the Passions. Now the slightest Observation will convince us, that these are associated, separated, and combined in Man, with a Variety almost infinite. In some, the Pleasures and Pains of Sense predominate; Imagination is dull; the Passions inactive. In others, a more delicate Frame awakens all the Powers of Imagination; the Passions are refined; the Senses disregarded. A third Constitution is carried away by the Strength of Passion: The Calls of Sense are contemned; and Imagination becomes no more than the necessary Instrument of some farther Gratification.
757 From overlooking this plain Fact, seems to have arisen the Discordance among Philosophers concerning the Happiness of Man. And while each hath attempted to exhibit one favourite Picture, as the Paragon or Standard of human Kind; they have all omitted some Ten thousand other Resemblances which actually subsist in Nature.* * * * * * *
758 But although these Observations may afford sufficient Proof, that the Stoic and Epicurean Pictures of Mankind are equally partial; yet still it remains to be enquired how far, upon the whole, the human Kind in Reality leans towards the one or the other: That is, ‘how far, and in what Degree, the uniform Practice of Virtue constitutes the Happiness of Individuals?’ Now the only Method of determining this Question, will be to select some of the most striking Features of the human Heart: By this Means we may approach towards a real Likeness, though from that infinite Variety which subsists in Nature, the Draught must ever be inadequate and defective.
To begin with the lowest Temperature of the human Species; ‘there are great Numbers of Mankind, in whom the Senses are the chief Sources of Pleasure and Pain.’* * * * * * *
To Men thus formed, how can Virtue gain Admittance? Do you appeal to their Taste of Beauty? They have none. To their acknowledged Perceptions of Right and Wrong? These they measure by their private Interest. To the Force of the public Affections? They never felt them. Thus every Avenue is foreclosed, by which Virtue should enter.
759 The next remarkable Peculiarity is, ‘where not the Senses, but Imagination is the predominant Source of Pleasure.’ Here the Taste always runs into the elegant Refinements of polite Arts and Acquirements; of Painting, Music, Architecture, Poetry, Sculpture: Or, in Defect of this truer Taste, on the false Delicacies of Dress, Furniture, and Equipage. Yet Experience tells us, that this Character is widely different from the virtuous one: That all the Powers of Imagination may subsist in their full Energy, while the public Affections and moral Sense are weak or utterly inactive. Nor can there be any necessary Connection between these different Feelings; because we see Numbers immersed in all the finer Pleasures of Imagination, who never once consider them as the Means of giving Pleasure to others, but merely as a selfish Gratification.* * * * * * *
‘Tis true, the Pleasures of Imagination and Virtue are often united in the same Mind; but ‘tis equally true, that they are often separate; that they who are most sensible to the one, are entire Strangers to the other; that one Man, to purchase a fine Picture, will oppress his Tenant; that another, to relieve his distressed Tenant, will sell his Statues or his Pictures. The Reason is evident: The one draws his chief Pleasure from Imagination; the other from Affection only. ‘Tis clear therefore, that ‘where Imagination is naturally the predominant Source of Pleasure,’ the Motives to Virtue must be very partial and weak, since the chief Happiness ariseth from a Source entirely distinct from the benevolent Affections.
760 Another, and very different Temperature of the Heart of Man is that ‘wherein neither Sense nor Imagination, but the Passions are the chief Sources of Pleasure and Pain.’ This often forms the best or the worst of Characters. As it runs either, First, Into the Extreme of Selfishness, Jealousy, Pride, Hatred, Envy, and Revenge; or, 2dly, Into the amiable Affections of Hope, Faith, Candour, Pity, Generosity, and Good-will; or, 3dly, Into a various Mixture or Combination of these; which is undoubtedly the most common Temperature of human Kind.
Now to the first of these Tempers, how can we affirm with Truth, that there is a natural Motive to Virtue? On the contrary, it should seem, that, if there be any Motive, it must be to Vice. For ‘tis plain, that from the Losses, Disappointments, and Miseries of Mankind, such vile Tempers draw their chief Felicity. The noble Writer indeed, in his Zeal for Virtue, considers these black Passions as unnatural, and brands them as a Source of constant Misery1 .* * * * * * *
761 When therefore the noble Writer calls these Affections unnatural, he doth not sufficiently explain himself. If indeed by their being unnatural, he means, that ‘they are such in their Degrees or Objects as to violate the public Happiness, which is the main Intention d Nature;’ in this Sense, ‘tis acknowledged, they are unnatural. But this Interpretation is foreign to the Question; because it affects not the Individual. But if, by their being unnatural, he would imply, that they are ‘a Source of constant Misery to the Agent;’ this seems a Proposition not easy to be determined in the Affirmative.* * * * * * *
762 For ‘tis plain, that in the Case of the c Men of gentlest Dispositions, and best of Tempers, occasionally agitated by ill Humour,’ there must be a strong Opposition and Discordance, a violent Conflict between the habitual Affections of Benevolence, and these accidental Eruptions of Spleen and Rancour which rise to obstruct their Course. A Warfare of this Kind must indeed be a State of complete Misery, when all is Uproar within, and the distracted Heart set at Variance with itself. But the Case is widely different, where ‘a thorow active Spleen prevails, a close and settled Malignity and Rancour.’ For in this Temper, there is no parallel Opposition of contending Passions: Nor therefore any similar Foundation for inward Disquiet and intense Misery.* * * * * * *
Thus where the selfish or malevolent Affections happen to prevail, there can be no internal Motive to Virtue.
763 On the contrary, where the amiable Affections of Hope, Candour, Generosity, and Benevolence predominate, in this best and happiest of Tempers, Virtue hath indeed all the Force and Energy, which the noble Writer attributes to her Charms. For where the Calls of Sense are weak, the Imagination active and refined, the public Affections predominate; there the moral Sense must naturally reign with uncontrouled Authority; must produce all that Self-Satisfaction, that Consciousness of merited Kindness and Esteem, in which, his Lordship affirms, the very Essence of our Motives to Virtue doth consist. This shall with Pleasure be acknowledged, nay asserted, as ‘the happiest of all Temperaments,’ whenever it can be found or acquired. To a Mind thus formed, Virtue doth indeed bring an immediate and ample Reward of perfect Peace and sincere Happiness in all the common Situations of Life. It may therefore be with Truth affirmed, that a Temper thus framed must indeed be naturally and internally moved to the uniform Practice of Virtue.
764 There are, besides these, an endless Variety of Characters formed from the various Combinations of these essential Ingredients; which are not designed as a full Expression of all the Tempers of Mankind: They are the Materials only, out of which these Characters are formed. They are no more than the several Species of simple Colours laid, as it were, upon the Pallet; which, variously combined and associated by the Hand of an experienced Master, would indeed call forth every striking Resemblance, every changeful Feature of the Heart of Man.
765 Now, among all this infinite Variety of Tempers which is found in Nature, we see there cannot be any uniform Motive to Virtue, save only ‘where the Senses are weak, the Imagination refined, and the public Affections strongly predominant.’ For in every other Character, where either the Senses, gross Imagination, or selfish Passions prevail, a natural Opposition or Discordance must arise, and destroy the uniform Motive to Virtue, by throwing the Happiness of the Agent into a different Channel. How seldom this sublime Temper is to be found, is hard to say: But this may be affirmed with Truth, that every Man is not really possessed of it in the Conduct of Life, who enjoys it in Imagination, or admires it in his Closet, as it lies in the Enquiry concerning Virtue. A Character of this supreme Excellence must needs he approved by most: And the Heart of Man being an unexhausted Fountain of Self-Deceit, what it approves, is forward to think itself possessed of. Thus a lively Imagination and unperceived Self-Love, fetter the Heart in certain ideal Bonds of their own creating: Till at length some turbulent and furious Passion arising in its Strength, breaks these fantastic Shackles which Fancy had imposed, and leaps to its Prey like a Tyger chained by Cobwebs.
766From these different Views of human Nature, let us now bring this Argument to a Conclusion.
The noble Writer's Scheme of Morals therefore, being grounded on a Supposition, which runs through the whole Course of his Argument, that ‘all Mankind are naturally capable of attaining a Taste or Relish for Virtue, sufficient for every Purpose of social Life,’ seems essentially defective. For, from the Enquiry already made into the real and various Constitution of Man, it appears, that a great Part of the Species are naturally incapable of this fancied Excellence. That the various Mixture and Predominancy of Sense, Imagination, and Passion, give a different Cast and Complexion of Mind to every Individual: That the Feeling or Prospect of Happiness can only arise from this Combination: That consequently, where the benevolent Affections and moral Sense are weak, the selfish Passions and Perceptions headstrong, there can be no internal Motive to the consistent Practice of Virtue.
767 The most plausible Pretence I could ever meet with, amidst all the Pomp of Declamation thrown out in support of this All-Sufficiency of a Taste in Morals, is this: ‘That although the Force and Energy of this Taste for Virtue appears not in every Individual, yet the Power lies dormant in every human Breast; and needs only be called forth by a voluntary Self-Discipline, in order to be brought to its just Perfection. That the Improvement in our Taste in Morals is parallel to the Progress of the Mind in every other Art and Excellence, in Painting, Music, Architecture, Poetry: In which, a true Taste, however natural to Man, is not bona with him, but formed and brought forth to Action by a proper Study and Application.’
The noble Writer hath innumerable Passages of this Kind: So many indeed, that it were Labour lost to transcribe them1 . And one of his Followers hath affirmed in still more emphatical Expressions, if possible, than his Master, that ‘the Height of Virtuoso-ship is Virtue2 .’
768 Now this State of the Case, though at first View it carries some Degree of Plausibility, yet, on a closer Examination, destroys the whole System. For if, as it certainly is, the Capacity for a Taste in Morals, be similar to a Capacity for a Taste in Arts; ‘tis clear, that the most assiduous Culture or Self-Discipline can never make it even general, much less universal. One Man, we see, hath a Capacity or Genius for Painting, another for Music, a third for Architecture, a fourth for Poetry. Torture each of them as you please, you cannot infuse a Taste for any, but his own congenial Art. If you attempt to make the Poet an Architect, or the Painter a Musician, you may make a pretending Pedant, never an accomplished Master. ‘Tis the same in Morals: Where the benevolent Affections are naturally strong, there is a Capacity for a high Taste in Virtue: Where these are weak or wanting, there is in the same Proportion, little or no Capacity for a Taste in Virtue. To harangue, therefore, on the superior Happiness attending the Exercise of the public Affections, is quite foreign to the Purpose. This superior Happiness is allowed, where the public Affections can be found, or made, predominant. But how can any Consequence be drawn from hence, so as to influence those who never felt the Impulse of public Affection?* * * * * * *
769 Thus, as according to these Moralists, the Relish or Taste for Virtue is similar to a Taste for Arts; so what is said of the Poet, the Painter, the Musician, may in this Regard with equal Truth be said of the Man of Virtue-Nascitur, non fit. Hence it is evident, that the noble Writer's System, which supposeth all Men capable of this exalted Taste, is chimerical and groundless.* * * * * * *
770 Again, the noble Writer often attempts to strengthen his Argument, by ‘representing the external Good which naturally flows from Virtue, and the external Evils which naturally attend on vice1 .’ But sure this is rather deserting than confirming his particular Theory; which is, to prove that Happiness is essential to Virtue, and inseparable from it: ‘That Misery is essential to Vice, and inseparable from it.’—Now, in bringing his Proofs from Happiness or Misery of the external Kind, he clearly deserts his original Intention: Because these Externals are not immediate, but consequential; not certain, but contingent: They are precisely of the Nature of Reward and Punishment; and therefore can have no Part in the Question now before us; which relates solely to ‘that Happiness or Misery arising from the inward State of the Mind, Affections, and moral Sense, on the Commission of Vice, or the Practice of Virtue.’ And this hath been already considered at large.
771 However, that nothing may be omitted which can even remotely affect the Truth; we may observe, in passing, that after all the laboured and well-meant Declamation on this Subject, ‘tis much easier to prove, ‘that Vice is the Parent of external Misery, than that Virtue is the Parent of external Happiness.’ ‘Tis plain, that no Man can be vicious in any considerable Degree, but he must suffer either in his Health, his Fame, or Fortune. Now the Generality of Moralists, after proving or illustrating this, have taken it for granted, as a certain Consequence, that the external Goods of Life are, by the Law of Contraries, in a similar Manner annexed to the Practice of Virtue. But in Reality the Proof can reach no further than to shew the happy Consequences of Innocence, which is a very different Thing from Virtue; for Innocence is only the abstaining from Evil; Virtue, the actual Production of Good. Now ‘tis evident indeed, that by abstaining from Evil (that is, by Innocence) we must stand clear of the Miseries to which we expose ourselves by the Commission of it: And this is as far as the Argument will go. But ff we rigorously examine the external Consequences of an active Virtue, in such a World as this; we shall find, it must be often maintained at the Expence both of Health, Ease, and Fortune; often the Loss of Friends, and Increase of Enemies; not to mention the unwearied Diligence of Envy, which is ever watchful and prepared to blast distinguished Merit. In the mean time, the innoxious Man sits unmolested and tranquil; loves Virtue, and praiseth it; avoids the Miseries of Vice, and the Fatigue of active Virtue; offends no Man, and therefore is beloved by all; and for the rest, makes it up by fair Words and civil Deportment. Thus Innocence, and not Virtue; Abstinence from Evil, not the Production of Good, is the furthest Point to which Mankind in general can be carried, from ‘a Regard to the external Consequences of Action.’* * * * * * *
772Having sufficiently evinced the flimzy, though curious, Contexture of these Cobweb Speculations spun in the Closet, let us now venture abroad into the World; let us proceed to something applicable to Life and Manners; and consider what are the real Motives, by which Mankind may be sway'd to the uniform Practice of Virtue.* * * * * * *
773 Now as it is clear from the Course of these Observations, that nothing can work this great Effect, but what can produce an ‘entire and universal Coincidence between private and public Happiness;’ so is it equally evident, that nothing can effectually convince Mankind, that their own Happiness universally depends on procuring, or at least not violating the Happiness of others, save only ‘the lively and active Belief of an all-seeing and all-powerful God, who will hereafter make them happy or miserable, according as they designedly promote or violate the Happiness of their Fellow-Creatures.’ And this Is the Essence of Religion.* * * * * * *
Rel. of Nat. (below, § 1034).
First Treat. on Moral Goodness (above, § 544).
Essay on Wit—Soliloquy—Enquiry—Moralists—Miscellanies—passim.
Enqu., B. i. p. 2. § 3 (above, § 13).
Demonst. (above, § 483).
Rel. of Nat. (below, § 1034).
Ibid. (below, § 1039).
The Gentlemen above examined seem to have mistaken the Attributes of Virtue for its Essence. Virtue is procuring Happiness: To procure Happiness is beautiful, reasonable, true; these are the Qualities or Attributes of the Action: But the Action itself, or its Essence, is procuring Happiness.
Senecae Expist. cxiv.
Hume's Essays, Mor. and Polit.
Three Treatises, by J. H. (James Harris). Treat. 3d. On Happiness.
Wit and Hum Part iii. § 3.
Enquiry (above, § 60-62).
Letters of Hydaspes to Philemon, Let. vi.
Enquiry, B. ii. P. i. § 3.