Front Page Titles (by Subject) section iii: Various Hypotheses Concerning Moral Obligation - The Elements of Moral Philosophy
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section iii: Various Hypotheses Concerning Moral Obligation - David Fordyce, The Elements of Moral Philosophy 
The Elements of Moral Philosophy, in Three Books with a Brief Account of the Nature, Progress, and Origin of Philosophy, ed. Thomas Kennedy (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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Various Hypotheses Concerning Moral Obligation
From the Induction which has been made, we shall be able to judge with more Advantage of the different Hypotheses which have been contrived to deduce the Origin of Moral Obligation.
The Scheme of HobbesHobbes, who saw Mankind in an unfavourable Attitude, involved in all the Distraction and Misery of a civil War, seems to have taken too narrow and partial a View of our Nature, and has therefore drawn it in a very odious and uncomfortable Light. Next to the Desire of Self-preservation, he makes the governing Passions in Man, the Love of Glory, and of Power; and from these, by an arbitrary, unnatural, and unsupported Hypothesis, contrary to common Experience, and common Language, he attempts to deduce all the other Passions which inflame the Minds, and influence the Manners of Men. All Men, says he, are by Nature equal, that is to say, according to his own Explanation, the weakest can do as much Mischief as the strongest; all desire, and have an equal Right to the same Things, and want to excel each other in Power and Honour; but as it is impossible for all to possess the same Things, or to obtain a Pre-eminence in Power and Honour, hence must arise mutual Contests, a natural Passion to invade the Property, and level the Power and Character of each other, and to raise and secure themselves against the Attempts of others.* This State of Things, in which every Man having a Right to every Thing, has likewise a Right to prevent his Neighbour by Force or Fraud; he tells us, must naturally produce a State of War and mutual Carnage. In such a State, he adds, nothing can be called unjust or unlawful; for he who has a Right to the End, has also a Right to the only Means of obtaining or securing it, which, according to him, are Force or Fraud. And this State he calls the State of Nature.—But our shrewd Philosopher subjoins, that Men being aware that such a State must terminate in their own Destruction, agreed to surrender their private unlimited Right into the Hands of the Majority, or such as the Majority should appoint, and to subject themselves for the future to common Laws, or to common Judges or Magistrates. In consequence of this Surrender, and of this mutual Compact or Agreement, they are secured against mutual Hostilities, and bound or obliged to a peaceable and good Behaviour; so that it is no longer lawful or just (the good Man means safe or prudent) to invade and encroach on another. For this would be contrary to Compact, and a Violation of his Promise and Faith.—Therefore as there could be no Injustice previous to this Compact, so the Compact, and it alone, must be the Origin of Justice, the Foundation of Duty and Moral Obligation. This is our subtle Philosopher’s Scheme!
But one may ask him, What Obligation is a Man under to keep his Promise, or stand to his Compact, if there be no Obligation, no moral Tie distinct from that Promise, and that Compact, independent of and previous to both? If there is none, they must prove a mere Rope of Sand, and Men are left as loose and unsociable as ever, as much Barbarians and Wolves as before their Union. But if there is a distinct and previous Obligation to Fidelity, Honour, and a Regard to one’s Engagements, then Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice, are antecedent to Compact.—Perhaps he will tell us that the Necessity of the Case, or a Regard to our own Safety, which is included in that of the Public, obliges us to adhere to our Engagements. We may be compelled or punished for Breach of Faith by those, to whom we transfer our Rights. Force, or superior Strength of the Majority to controul or punish the Refractory, is, no doubt, the true Origin of the Obligation, if he will speak out, and Self-love is its only Judge and Measure. And if this be all, then what Obligation is a Man under to Gratitude, Charity, Friendship, and all those Duties of Humanity, which fall not under the Cognizance or Controul of Law? What Obligations to private Veracity, Honesty and Fidelity, when a Man may be a Knave with Safety? That Scheme, therefore, which sets us loose from such Obligations, and involves us in such Absurdities, must be itself both absurd and wicked. That State of Nature which it supposes as its Foundation, is a mere Chimera, a Vision of his own Brain, which, from the Condition and Nature of the Creature, the Growth of a Family, the Rise of a Tribe or Clan, we have no Reason to believe ever subsisted; therefore the Superstructure which he has raised on that Foundation, is fictitious and chimerical. Hobbes took it for granted, that all Men were Knaves or Fools, and wanted to dress up a System of Government, agreeable to the corrupt Taste of the reigning Powers, and to the Genius of a most dissolute Court, a Government contrived to make a small Part of Mankind Tyrants, and all the rest Slaves. He measured Virtue by mere Utility, and while he pretends to be the first that discovered this Connection, and gave the only true Reason for the Practice of Honesty, he seems to have misunderstood, or wilfully overlooked its true Nature, and its inseparable Connection with the Perfection and Happiness of the Individual.
Scheme of Conformity to the Divine WillAnother Set of Moralists establish Morals upon the Will or positive Appointment of the Deity, and call Virtue a Conformity to that Will, or Appointment. All Obligation, they say, supposes one who obliges, or who has a Right to prescribe, and can reward the Obedient, and punish the Disobedient. This can be none but our Creator. His Will therefore is our Law, which we are bound to obey. And this they tell us is only sufficient to bind, or oblige such imperfect and corrupt Creatures as we are, who are but feebly moved with a Sense of the Beauty and Excellency of Virtue, and strongly swayed by Passion, or Views of Interest.
That Virtue, or such a Conduct of the Passions as hath been above described, is agreeable to the Will of God, is evident beyond Dispute, as that Conduct, or Scheme of Duty, is pointed out to us by our Inward Structure, and as that Inward Structure is the Effect of the Will or Appointment of the Deity. Whatever therefore is agreeable, or correspondent to our Inward Structure, must likewise be agreeable, or correspond to the Will of God. So that all the Indications, or Sanctions of our Duty, which are declared, or enforced by our Structure, are, and may be, considered as Indications, or Sanctions of the Will of our Creator. If these Indications, through Inattention to, or Abuse of the Structure, prove insufficient to declare; or if these Sanctions, through the Weakness or Wickedness of Men, prove insufficient to enforce Obedience to the Divine Will, and the Deity is pleased to superadd new Indications, or new Sanctions; these additional Indications and Sanctions cannot, and are not supposed by the Assertors of this Scheme, to add any new Duty, or any new Moral Obligation; but only a new and clearer Promulgation of our Duty, or a new and stronger Sanction or Motive from Interest, to perform that Duty, and to fulfil that Obligation to which we were bound before. It makes no Difference, as to the Matter of Obligation, after what mannar the Will of our Creator is enforced, or declared to us, whether by Word or Writ, or by certain inward Notices and Determinations of our own Minds, arising according to a necessary Law of our Nature.—By whichever of these Ways we suppose the Divine Will intimated to us, the first Question that naturally occurs to us is, “Why we are obliged to obey the Divine Will?” If it be answered, that he is our Superior, and can reward, or punish us, as we are obedient or refractory; this is resting Obligation upon the foot of Interest. If we say that he is our Creator, and Benefactor, and we ought to obey our Creator and be grateful to our Benefactor, this refers the Obligation to an inward Sense, or Perception, that Obedience is due to one’s Creator, Gratitude to one’s Benefactor. Upon what other Principle but this, can we connect those Relations, and that Obedience and Gratitude, unless we recur to the Principle of Self-interest just now mentioned? If the Scheme of Duty and Moral Obligation be thought to rest on too slight a Foundation, when built on Moral Perception, and the Affections of our Nature, because these are found insufficient to bind, or rather compel Men to their Duty, we fear the same Objection will militate against this Scheme, since all the Declarations and Sanctions of the Divine Will have not hitherto had their due Effect in producing a thorough and universal Reformation.
When some speak of the Will of God, as the Rule of Duty, they do not certainly mean a blind, arbitrary Principle of Action, but such a Principle as is directed by Reason, and governed by Wisdom, or a Regard to certain Ends in Preference to others. Unless we suppose some Principle in the Deity analogous to our Sense of the Obligation, some antecedent Affection, or Determination of his Nature, to prefer some Ends before others, we cannot assign any sufficient, or indeed any possible Reason, why he should will one thing more than another, or have any Election at all. Whatever therefore is the Ground of his Choice, or Will, must be the Ground of Obligation, and not the Choice, or Will itself.—That this is so, appears plainly from the common Distinction which Divines and Philosophers make between Moral and Positive Commands and Duties. The former they think obligatory, antecedent to Will, or at least to any Declaration of it; the latter obligatory only in consequence of a positive Appointment of the Divine Will. But what Foundation can there be for this Distinction, if all Duty and all Obligation be equally the Result of mere Will?
Scheme of Truth, of the Natures and Reasons of ThingsA more refined Tribe of Philosophers have attempted to lay the Foundation of Morals much deeper, and on a more large and firm Bottom, viz. the Natures and Reasons, the Truth and Fitnesses of Things. Senses and Affections, they tell us, are vague and precarious; and though they are not, yet irrational Principles of Action, and consequently very improper Foundations, on which to rest the eternal and immutable Obligations of Morality. Therefore they talk much of the abstract Natures and Reasons of Things, of eternal Differences, unalterable Relations, Fitnesses and Unfitnesses resulting from those Relations; and from these eternal Reasons, Differences, Relations, and their consequent Fitnesses, they suppose Moral Obligation to arise. A Conduct agreeable to them, or, in other words, “A Conformity to Truth they call Virtue, and the Reverse they call Vice.”*
We perceive the Nature of Things by different Organs, or Senses, and our Reason acts upon them when so perceived, and investigates those Relations which subsist between them, or traces what is true, what is false, what may be affirmed, and what denied concerning them. Thus by Sense or Experience we perceive the Nature or Character of a Benefactor, and of a Beneficiary (if one may so express it) and upon comparing them together, a third Idea is suggested to us, which we call the Relation between the Benefactor and Beneficiary; we likewise perceive the Foundation of that Relation, some Benefit received. But are any of these Ideas that which we understand by the Moral Duty or Obligation, the Idea of Gratitude due to the Benefactor from the Beneficiary? This is evidently a distinct Perception, obvious to some Sense, Organ, or Power of Perception, but not the Result of Reasoning. Suppose farther, the Benefactor in Prison for a small Debt, and the Beneficiary in Affluence, Reason may suggest to the latter, that a little Share of his Wealth bestowed on the former, will make a considerable Change in his State to the better; but will Reason, mere Reason, without some degree of Affection, prompt him to such a well-placed Charity? Or will the Perception of his Relation to his Benefactor and of the Benefit received, lead him to approve such a Conduct, unless we suppose a Sense or Feeling quite different from that Perception of the intervening Relation, and of the Ground of that Relation? We might, therefore, perceive all the possible Reasons, Relations, and Differences of Things, and yet be totally indifferent to this or that Conduct, unless we were endued with some Sense or Affection, by which we approved and loved one, or disapproved and disliked the other Conduct. Reason may perceive a Fitness, or Aptitude to a certain End, but without some Sense or Affection we cannot propose, or indeed have any Idea of an End, and without an End we cannot conceive any Inducement to Action.—Therefore before we can understand the Natures, Reasons, and Fitnesses of Things, which are said to be the Foundation of Morals, we must know what Natures are meant, to what Ends they are fitted, and from what Principles or Affections they are prompted to act, otherwise we cannot judge of the Duty required, or of the Conduct becoming that Being whom we suppose under Moral Obligation. But let the Natures be once given, and the Relations which subsist among them be ascertained, we can then determine what Conduct will be obligatory to such Natures, and adapted to their Condition and Oeconomy. And to the same Natures placed in the same Relations, the same Conduct will be eternally, and invariably proper and obligatory.
To call Morality a Conformity to Truth, gives no Idea, no Characteristic of it, but what seems equally applicable to Vice. For whatever Propositions are predicable of Virtue, as, that it flows from good Affection, or is agreeable to the Order of our Nature,—tends to produce Happiness,—is beheld with Approbation, and the like, the contrary Propositions are equally true, and may be equally predicated of Vice. What is Truth, but the Conformity of Propositions to the Nature or Existence and Reality of Things? And has not Vice its Nature, its Existence, its Adjuncts and Consequences, as much as Virtue? And are not Propositions conformable to them true Propositions? And therefore is not a Conduct suited to, or significative of such true Propositions, a true Conduct, or a Conduct conformable to Truth? Could we understand a Watchmaker, a Painter, or a Statuary, talking of their respective Arts, should they tell us, that a Watch, a Picture, or Statue, were good when they were true, or done according to Truth, and that their Art lay in adjusting them to Truth? Would they not speak more intelligibly, and more to the Purpose, if they should explain to us their End or Use, and in order to that, shew us their Parts both together and separately, the Bearings and Proportions of those Parts, and their Reference to that End? Is not such a Detail likewise necessary to understand Human Nature, its Duty, and End? Will the Truth, the abstract Natures and Reasons, the eternal Relations and Fitnesses of Things, form such a Detail? But suppose it could, yet what Degrees of Virtue, or Vice, does Truth admit? Truth is a simple, uniform, invariable Thing, incapable of Intension or Remission. But Virtue and Vice admit of almost infinite Degrees and Variations, and therefore cannot consist of, or be founded upon, a Thing which admits of none. For such as is the Foundation, such must the Superstructure be.
Objection against the Scheme in Section 2But it is said, that, to deduce Moral Obligation from the Constitution of our Nature, and an Inward Sense, is to render it exceedingly precarious and mutable, because Man might have been differently constituted, so as to approve of Treachery, Malice, Cruelty, and then another, or a quite contrary Train of Duties would have been required, or obligatory.
The AnswerThat Human Nature might have been otherwise constituted than it is, is perhaps true, but that it could have been better constituted, considering its present State and Circumstances, may be justly questioned under his Government, who does every thing in Number, Weight, and Measure, and who has poured Wisdom and Beauty over all his Works. The little Sketch that hath been given of our Nature, shews that it is admirably adapted to our present Condition, and the various Connections we sustain. We could not have subsisted, or at least not have subsisted so well, in such a Condition, nor maintained such Connections, without that successive Train of Powers and Passions with which we are endued. Without them, or with a contrary Set, we must have been miserable. And he who ordained the Condition and settled the Connections, must likewise have ordained that Conduct of Powers, and that Balance of Passions which is exactly proportioned to that Condition and to those Connections. Such an Order of Creatures being supposed, and such a Condition with such Connections being given, such a Conduct as has been traced out, must be eternally and invariably obligatory to such Creature so placed and so connected. Had Man been a different Creature, and placed in different Circumstances, a Spider for instance, or an Hound, a different Set of Duties would have then become him; the Web, the Vigilance, the rapacious Conduct of the former; the Sagacity, the Love of Game, and Swiftness of the latter, and the Satisfaction of Appetite, the Propagation and Love of Offspring common to both, would have fulfilled the Destinations of his Nature, and been his proper Business and Oeconomy. But as Man is not only a Sensible, an Active, and a Social, but a Rational, a Political, and a Religious Creature, he has a nobler Part to act, and more numerous and more important Obligations to fulfil. And if afterwards, in any future Period of his Duration, he shall be advanced to a superior Station, and take in wider Connections, the Sphere of his Duty, and the Number and Weight of his Obligations, must increase in proportion. Had a Creature, therefore, situated and connected as Man, been formed with Dispositions to approve of Treachery, Malice, or Cruelty, such a Temper or Constitution would have been evidently destructive of his Happiness. Now if we imagine the Deity prefers some Ends to others, suppose the Happiness of his Creatures to their Misery, he must likewise prefer the Means most adapted to those Ends. Therefore, supposing the Deity necessarily Wise and Good, he could not have implanted in us such Dispositions, or, in other words, could not have annexed Feelings of Approbation to a Conduct so incongruous to our State, and so subversive of our Happiness. Consequently amidst the infinite Variety of possible Constitutions, Vice could never have been approveable, and of course, not obligatory.—Therefore, “The Scheme of Human Nature above proposed, rests on the same Foundation as the Divine Wisdom and Goodness, and the Scheme of Moral Obligation erected upon it, must be equally immutable and immortal.” And that the Deity is wise and good, supremely and universally so, Nature cries aloud through all her Works.
Another ObjectionBut it is farther objected against this Scheme, that Mankind differ strangely in their Moral Sentiments, some approving Treachery, Revenge, and Cruelty, nay whole Nations Theft, the Exposition of Infants, and many other Crimes of as black a Dye: therefore the Moral Sense, recommended as the Judge of Morals, is either not universal, or a very uncertain and fallacious Rule.
The AnswerAs to that Diversity of Opinion, or rather of Practice, concerning Moral Obligation, we can no more conclude from thence, that the internal Perception, or Moral Sense of Right and Wrong, is not an Universal, or Certain Standard or Rule of judging in Morals, than we can infer from the different Opinions concerning the Merit of the same Performances, that there is no Standard in Painting, no certain and uncontroverted Principle of the Art. In the last, Men appeal from particular Tastes, Manners, and Customs, to Nature, as the supreme Standard, and acknowledge that the Perfection of the Art lies in the just Imitation of it; but from a Diversity in Organs, in Capacity, in Education, from Favour, Prejudice, and a thousand other Circumstances, they differ in applying the Rule to particular Instances. The same thing holds in Morals; Men admit the Rule in general, and appeal to our common Nature and to common Sense, nay seldom differ or judge wrong in impartial Cases. When at any time they misapply, or deviate from the received Standard, a fair and satisfying Account may be given of their Variations.
We have heard of States which have allowed Theft, and the Exposition of lame or deformed Children. But in those States there was hardly any Property, all things were common, and to train up a hardy, shifting, sagacious Youth, was thought far preferable to the Security of any private Property. The Exposition of their Children was esteemed the Sacrifice of private Social Affection to the Love of the Public. We need not doubt but they loved their Children; but as such Children were accounted useless, and even hurtful to a Commonwealth, formed entirely upon a warlike Plan, they reckoned it gallant to prefer the public, to the strongest and most endearing private Interest. So that their Mistake lay in supposing a real Competition between those Interests, not in disavowing, or divesting themselves of parental Affection; a Mistake into which they would not have fallen had they enjoyed a more natural, refined, and extensive System of Policy. In some Countries they put their aged decrepit Parents to Death, but is it because they condemn, or want natural Affection? No; but they think it the best Proof of their Affection to deliver them from the Miseries of old Age, which they do not believe can be counter-balanced by all its Enjoyments. In short, neither Cruelty, nor Ingratitude, nor any Action under an immoral Form, are ever approved. Men reason wrong only about the Tendency, the Consequences, Materials, and other Circumstances of the Action. It may appear in different Lights or with different Sides, according to the different Views and Opinions of the Consequences which the Moral Spectator or Actor has, or according to his Passions, Habits, and other Circumstances; but still the general Rule is recognized, the Moral Quality or Species is admired, and the Deviation from the Rule condemned and disliked. Thus, Inhumanity is condemned by all, yet Persecution for the sake of religious Opinions is approved, and even practised by some under the Notion of Compassion to the Souls of the Sufferers, or to those of others who, they think, can only be thus secured against the Infection of Heresy; or under the Form of Zeal for the Honour of God, a Divine Principle, to which they are persuaded whatever is Human ought to stoop: though to every large and well-informed Mind such a Conduct must appear most barbarous and inhuman, with how pious a Name soever it may be sanctified.—No Man approves Malice; but to hate a wicked Character, or to resent an Injury, are deemed equally conducive to Private Security, and to Public Good, and appear to the Actors, even in their most outrageous Sallies, a noble Contempt of Vice, or a generous Indignation against Wrong. The Highwayman condemns Injustice, and resents the pilfering Knavery of a Brother of the Trade; but to excuse himself he says, Necessity has no Law, an honest Fellow must not starve, he has tried the Way of Industry, but in vain; the prime Law of Self-preservation must be obeyed.—From these, and the like Topics, it appears no hard Matter to account for the Diversity of Opinions concerning Moral Obligation, viz. from Mistakes about the Tendency of Actions, the Nature of Happiness, or of public or private Good, from the partial Connections Men have formed, from false Opinions of Religions and the Will of God, and from violent Passions, which make them misapply the Rule, or not attend to the Moral Quality as they ought. Therefore by separating what is foreign, and appealing to the true Standard of Nature, as ascertained above, and by observing the Reasons of those Variations which we find sometimes among Individuals, we plainly recognize the Stability of the Rule of Moral Obligation, and discern the Universality of the Sense; and the Variations, instead of being Exceptions against either, rather concur in confirming one, and demonstrating the other.
ConclusionFrom the whole, we may conclude, that the Nature, the Reasons, and the Relations of things would never have suggested to us this simple Idea of Moral Obligation without a proper Sense susceptible of it. It is interwoven with the very Frame and Constitution of our Nature, and by it We are in the strictest Sense a Law to Ourselves. Nor is it left to us to trace out this Law by the cool or slow Deductions of Reason; far less is this Law the Result of subtile and metaphysical Enquiries into the abstract Natures and Relations of Things; we need not ascend to Heaven to bring it down from thence, nor descend into the Depths to seek it there; it is within us, ever present with us, ever active and incumbent on the Mind, and engraven on the Heart in the fair and large Signatures of Conscience, Natural Affection, Compassion, Gratitude, and universal Benevolence.
[*] Vid. Hob. de Cive, cap. i, ii, &c. and Leviath. c. xvii, &c. [Thomas Hobbes’s De Cive was first published in Paris in 1642 and became available in an English translation as The Citizen in 1651, the year of the publication of his better-known Leviathan.]
[*] See Dr. Clarke, Woolaston, and other eminent Writers. [Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) was rector of St. James Church, Westminster. His Boyle lectures, A Discourse concerning the Being and Attributes of God (London, 1705), vol. 1, and A Discourse concerning the Unchangeable Obligations of Natural Religion and the Truth and Certainty of the Christian Revelation (London, 1706), vol. 2, are referred to here. Clarke traced moral obligation to “eternal and necessary differences of things” or moral fitness and unfitness. “There is … such a thing as fitness and unfitness, eternally, necessarily, and unchangeably, in the Nature and Reason of Things.” Vol. 1, 571. Close to Clarke was the independent scholar William Wollaston (1660–1724), who privately published The Religion of Nature Delineated in 1722, correcting the work for wider distribution in 1724. Wollaston believed that morally evil actions are actions that are “incompatible” with eternal moral truths. Thus, for example, “Every Act … , and all those omissions, which interfere with truth (i.e. deny any proposition to be true, which is true; or suppose any thing not to be what it is, in any regard) are morally evil, in some degree or other: the forbearing such acts, and the acting in opposition to such omissions are morally good: and when any thing may be either done, or not done, equally without the violation of truth, that thing is indifferent.” (20)]