Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 11: Contracts of Labour Service - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 11: Contracts of Labour Service - 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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Contracts of Labour
Service in this country is, as it ought to be, voluntary, and by contract; and the master’s authority extends no further than the terms or equitable construction of the contract will justify.
The treatment of servants, as to diet, discipline, and accommodation, the kind and quantity of work to be required of them, the intermission, liberty, and indulgence to be allowed them, must be determined in a great measure by custom; for where the contract involves so many particulars, the contracting parties express a few perhaps of the principal, and, by mutual understanding, refer the rest to the known custom of the country in like cases.
A servant is not bound to obey the unlawful commands of his master; to minister, for instance, to his unlawful pleasures; or to assist him by unlawful practices in his profession; as in smuggling or adulterating the articles in which he deals. For the servant is bound by nothing but his own promise; and the obligation of a promise extends not to things unlawful.
For the same reason, the master’s authority is no justification of the servant in doing wrong; for the servant’s own promise, upon which that authority is founded, would be none.
Clerks and apprentices ought to be employed entirely in the profession or trade which they are intended to learn. Instruction is their hire; and to deprive them of the opportunities of instruction, by taking up their time with occupations foreign to their business, is to defraud them of their wages.
The master is responsible for what a servant does in the ordinary course of his employment; for it is done under a general authority committed to him, which is in justice equivalent to a specific direction. Thus, if I pay money to a banker’s clerk, the banker is accountable; but not if I had paid it to his butler or his footman, whose business it is not to receive money. Upon the same principle, if I once send a servant to take up goods upon credit, whatever goods he afterwards takes up at the same shop, so long as he continues in my service, are justly chargeable to my account.
The law of this country goes great lengths in intending a kind of concurrence in the master, so as to charge him with the consequences of his servant’s conduct. If an inn-keeper’s servant rob his guests, the inn-keeper must make restitution; if a farrier’s servant lame a horse, the farrier must answer for the damage; and still further, if your coachman or carter drive over a passenger in the road, the passenger may recover from you a satisfaction for the hurt he suffers. But these determinations stand, I think, rather upon the authority of the law, than any principle of natural justice.
There is a carelessness and facility in “giving characters,” as it is called, of servants, especially when given in writing, or according to some established form, which, to speak plainly of it, is a cheat upon those who accept them. They are given with so little reserve and veracity, “that I should as soon depend,” says the author of the Rambler, “upon an acquittal at the Old Bailey, by way of recommendation of a servant’s honesty, as upon one of these characters.” It is sometimes carelessness; and sometimes also to get rid of a bad servant without the uneasiness of a dispute; for which nothing can be pleaded but the most ungenerous of all excuses, that the person whom we deceive is a stranger.
There is a conduct the reverse of this, but more injurious, because the injury falls where there is no remedy; I mean the obstructing of a servant’s advancement, because you are unwilling to spare his service. To stand in the way of your servant’s interest, is a poor return for his fidelity; and affords slender encouragement for good behaviour, in this numerous and therefore important part of the community. It is a piece of injustice which, if practised towards an equal, the law of honour would lay hold of; as it is, it is neither uncommon nor disreputable.
A master of a family is culpable, if he permit any vices among his domestics, which he might restrain by due discipline, and a proper interference. This results from the general obligation to prevent misery when in our power; and the assurance which we have, that vice and misery at the long run go together. Care to maintain in his family a sense of virtue and religion, received the Divine approbation in the person of Abraham, Gen. xviii. 19: “I know him, that he will command his children, and his household after him; and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgement.” And indeed no authority seems so well adapted to this purpose, as that of masters of families; because none operates upon the subjects of it with an influence so immediate and constant.
What the Christian Scriptures have delivered concerning the relation and reciprocal duties of masters and servants, breathes a spirit of liberality, very little known in ages when servitude was slavery; and which flowed from a habit of contemplating mankind under the common relation in which they stand to their Creator, and with respect to their interest in another existence:* “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters, according to the flesh, with fear and trembling; in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart; with good will, doing service as to the Lord, and not to men; knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And ye masters, do the same thing unto them, forbearing threatening; knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” The idea of referring their service to God, of considering him as having appointed them their task, that they were doing his will, and were to look to him for their reward, was new; and affords a greater security to the master than any inferior principle, because it tends to produce a steady and cordial obedience, in the place of that constrained service, which can never be trusted out of sight, and which is justly enough called eye-service. The exhortation to masters, to keep in view their own subjection and accountableness, was no less seasonable.
[* ]Eph. vi. 5–9.