Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 7: The Necessity of General Rules - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 7: The Necessity of General Rules - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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The Necessity of General Rules
You cannot permit one action and forbid another, without showing a difference between them. Consequently, the same sort of actions must be generally permitted or generally forbidden. Where, therefore, the general permission of them would be pernicious, it becomes necessary to lay down and support the rule which generally forbids them.
Thus, to return once more to the case of the assassin. The assassin knocked the rich villain on the head, because he thought him better out of the way than in it. If you allow this excuse in the present instance, you must allow it to all who act in the same manner, and from the said motive; that is, you must allow every man to kill any one he meets, whom he thinks noxious or useless; which, in the event, would be to commit every man’s life and safety to the spleen, fury, and fanaticism, of his neighbour—a disposition of affairs which would soon fill the world with misery and confusion; and ere long put an end to human society, if not to the human species.
The necessity of general rules in human government is apparent: but whether the same necessity subsist in the Divine oeconomy, in that distribution of rewards and punishments to which a moralist looks forward, may be doubted.
I answer, that general rules are necessary to every moral government: and by moral government I mean any dispensation, whose object is to influence the conduct of reasonable creatures.
For if, of two actions perfectly similar, one be punished, and the other be rewarded or forgiven, which is the consequence of rejecting general rules, the subjects of such a dispensation would no longer know either what to expect or how to act. Rewards and punishments would cease to be such—would become accidents. Like the stroke of a thunderbolt, or the discovery of a mine, like a blank or a benefit-ticket in a lottery, they would occasion pain or pleasure when they happened; but, following in no known order, from any particular course of action, they could have no previous influence or effect upon the conduct.
An attention to general rules, therefore, is included in the very idea of reward and punishment. Consequently, whatever reason there is to expect future reward and punishment at the hand of God, there is the same reason to believe, that he will proceed in the distribution of it by general rules.
Before we prosecute the consideration of general consequences any further, it may be proper to anticipate a reflection, which will be apt enough to suggest itself, in the progress of our argument.
As the general consequence of an action, upon which so much of the guilt of a bad action depends, consists in the example; it should seem, that if the action be done with perfect secrecy, so as to furnish no bad example, that part of the guilt drops off. In the case of suicide, for instance, if a man can so manage matters, as to take away his own life, without being known or suspected to have done so, he is not chargeable with any mischief from the example; nor does his punishment seem necessary, in order to save the authority of any general rule.
In the first place, those who reason in this manner do not observe, that they are setting up a general rule, of all others the least to be endured; namely, that secrecy, whenever secrecy is practicable, will justify any action.
Were such a rule admitted, for instance, in the case above produced; is there not reason to fear that people would be disappearing perpetually?
In the next place, I would wish them to be well satisfied about the points proposed in the following queries:
1. Whether the Scriptures do not teach us to expect that, at the general judgement of the world, the most secret actions will be brought to light?*
2. For what purpose can this be, but to make them the objects of reward and punishment?
3. Whether, being so brought to light, they will not fall under the operation of those equal and impartial rules, by which God will deal with his creatures?
They will then become examples, whatever they be now; and require the same treatment from the judge and governor of the moral world, as if they had been detected from the first.
[* ]“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” Rom. xi. 16. “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart.” 1 Cor. iv. 5.