From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia
STANDARD OF RIGHT AND WRONG.
IT is obvious that to him who seeks the knowledge of his duty, the first inquiry is, What is the rule of duty? what is the standard of right and wrong? Most men, or most of those with whom we are concerned, agree that this standard consists in the will of God. But here the coincidence of opinion stops. Various and very dissimilar answers are given to the question—How is the will of God to be discovered? These differences lead to differing conclusions respecting human duty. All the proposed modes of discovering his will cannot be the best nor the right; and those which are not right, are likely to lead to erroneous conclusions respecting what his will is.
It becomes therefore a question of very great interest,—How is the will of God to be discovered? and, if there should appear to be more sources than one from which it may be deduced,—What is that source which, in our investigations, we are to regard as paramount to every other?
THE WILL OF GOD.
When we say that most men agree in referring to the will of God as the standard of rectitude, we do not mean that all those who have framed systems of moral philosophy have set out with this proposition as their fundamental rule; but we mean that the majority of mankind do really believe (with whatever indistinctness), that they ought to obey the will. of God; and that, as it respects the systems of philosophical men, they will commonly be found to involve, directly or indirectly, the same belief, He who says that the “understanding”1 is to be our moral guide, is not far from saying that we are to be guided by the Divine will; because the understanding, however we define it, is the offspring of the Divine counsels and power. When Adam Smith resolves moral obligation into propriety arising from feelings of “sympathy,”2 the conclusion is not very different; for these feelings are manifestly the result of that constitution which God gave to man. When Bishop Butler says that we ought to live according to nature, and make conscience the judge whether we do so live or not, a kindred observation arises, for the existence and nature of conscience must be referred ultimately to the Divine will. Dr. Samuel Clarke’s philosophy is, that moral obligation is to be referred to the eternal and necessary differences of things. This might appear less obviously to have respect to the Divine will, yet Dr. Clarke himself subsequently says, that the duties which these eternal differences of things impose, “are also the express and unalterable will, command, and law of God to his creatures, which he cannot but expect should be observed by them in obedience to his supreme authority.”3 Very similar is the practical doctrine of Wollaston. His theory is, that moral good and evil consist in a conformity or disagreement with truth—“in treating every thing as being what it is.” But then he says, that to act by this rule “must be agreeable to the will of God, and if so, the contrary must be disagreeable to it, and, since there must be perfect rectitude in his will, certainly wrong.”4 It is the same with Dr. Paley, in his far-famed doctrine of expediency. “It is the utility of any action alone which constitutes the obligation of it;” but this very obligation is deduced from the Divine benevolence; from which it is attempted to show, that a regard to utility is enforced by the will of God. Nay, he says expressly, “Every duty is a duty towards God, since it is his will which makes it a duty.”5
Now there is much value in these testimonies, direct or indirect, to the truth—that the will of God is the standard of right and wrong. The indirect testimonies are perhaps the more valuable of the two. He who gives undesigned evidence in favour of a proposition, is less liable to suspicion in his motives.
But, while we regard these testimonies, and such as these, as containing satisfactory evidence that the will of God is our moral law, the intelligent inquirer will perceive that many of the proposed theories are likely to lead to uncertain and unsatisfactory conclusions respecting what that will requires. They prove that his will is the standard, but they do not clearly inform us how we shall bring our actions into juxtaposition with it.
One proposes the understanding as the means; but every observer perceives that the understandings of men are often contradictory in their decisions. Indeed, many of those who now think their understandings dictate the rectitude of a given action, will find that the understandings of the intelligent pagans of antiquity came to very different conclusions.
A second proposes sympathy, regulated indeed and restrained, but still sympathy. However ingenious a philosophical system may be, I believe that good men find, in the practice of life, that these emotions are frequently unsafe and sometimes erroneous guides of their conduct. Besides, the emotions are to be regulated and restrained: which of itself intimates the necessity of a regulating and restraining, that is, of a superior power.
To say we should act according to the “eternal and necessary differences of things,” is to advance a proposition which nine persons out of ten do not understand, and of course cannot adopt in practice; and of those who do understand it, perhaps an equal majority cannot apply it, with even tolerable facility, to the concerns of life. Why indeed should a writer propose these eternal differences, if he acknowledges that the rules of conduct which result from them are “the express will and command of God?”
To the system of a fourth, which says that virtue consists in a “conformity of our actions with truth,” the objection presents itself—What is truth? or how, in the complicated affairs of life, and in the moment perhaps of sudden temptation shall the individual discover what truth is?
Similar difficulties arise in applying the doctrine of Utility, in “adjusting our actions so as to promote, in the greatest degree, the happiness of mankind.” is obviously difficult to apply this doctrine in practice. The welfare of mankind depends upon circumstances which, if it were possible, it is not easy to foresee. Indeed in many of those conjunctures in which important decisions must instantly be made, the computation of tendencies to general happiness is wholly impracticable.
Besides these objections which apply to the systems separately, there is one which applies to them all—That they do not refer us directly to the will of God. They interpose a medium; and it is the inevitable tendency of all such mediums to render the truth uncertain. They depend not indeed upon hearsay evidence, but upon something of which the tendency is the same. They seek the will of God not from positive evidence, but by implication; and we repeat the truth; that every medium that is interposed between the Divine will and our estimates of it, diminishes the probability that we shall estimate it rightly.
These are considerations which, antecedently to all others, would prompt us to seek the will of God directly and immediately; and it is evident that this direct and immediate knowledge of the Divine will, can in no other manner be possessed than by his own communication of it.
THE COMMUNICATION OF THE WILL OF GOD.
That a direct communication of the will of the Deity respecting the conduct which mankind shall pursue, must be very useful to them, can need little proof. It is sufficiently obvious that they who have had no access to the written revelations, have commonly entertained very imperfect views of right and wrong. What Dr. Johnson says of the ancient epic poets, will apply generally to pagan philosophers: They “were very unskilful teachers of virtue,” because “they wanted the light of revelation.” Yet these men were inquisitive and acute, and it may be supposed they would have discovered moral truth if sagacity and inquisitiveness had been sufficient for the task. But it is unquestionable, that there are many ploughmen in this country who possess more accurate knowledge of morality than all the sages of antiquity. We do not indeed sufficiently consider for how much knowledge respecting the Divine will we are indebted to his own communication of it. “Many arguments, many truths, both moral and religious, which appear to us that products of our understandings and the fruits of ratiocination, are in reality nothing more than emanations from Scripture; rays of the gospel imperceptibly transmitted, and as it were conveyed to our minds in a side light.”6 Of Lord Herbert’s book, De Veritate, which was designed to disprove the validity of Revelation, it is obeyed by the editor of his “Life,” that it is “a book so strongly imbued with the light of revelation relative to the moral virtues and a future life, that no man ignorant of the Scriptures, or of the knowledge derived from them, could have written it.”7 A modern system of moral philosophy is founded upon the duty of doing good to man, because it appears, from the benevolence of God himself, that such is his will. Did those philosophers then who had no access to the written expression of his will discover, with any distinctness, this seemingly obvious benevolence of God? No. “The heathens failed of drawing that deduction relating to morality to which, as we should now judge, the most obvious parts of natural knowledge, and such as certainly obtained among them, were sufficient to lead them, namely, the goodness of God.”8—We are, I say, much more indebted to revelation for moral light than we commonly acknowledge or indeed commonly perceive.
But if in fact we obtain from the communication of the will of God, knowledge of wider extent and of a higher order than was otherwise attainable, is it not an argument that that communicated will should be our supreme law, and that if any of the inferior means of acquiring moral knowledge lead to conclusions in opposition to that will, they ought to give way to its higher authority?
Indeed, the single circumstance that an Omniscient Being, and who also is the Judge of mankind, has expressed his will respecting their conduct, appears a sufficient evidence that they should regard that expression as their paramount rule. They cannot elsewhere refer to so high an authority. If the expression of his will is not the ultimate standard of right and wrong, it can only be on the supposition that his will itself is not the ultimate standard; for no other means of ascertaining that will can be equally perfect and authoritative.
Another consideration is this, that if we examine those sacred volumes in which the written expression of the Divine will is contained, we find that they habitually proceed upon the supposition that the will of God, being expressed, is for that reason our final law. They do not set about formal proofs that we ought to sacrifice inferior rules to it, but conclude, as of course, that if the will of God is made known, human duty is ascertained. “It is not to be imagined that the Scriptures would refer to any other foundation of virtue than the true one, and certain it is that the foundation to which they constantly do refer is the will of God.”9 Nor is this all: they refer to the expression of the will of God. We hear nothing of any other ultimate authority—nothing of “sympathy”—nothing of the “eternal fitness of things”—nothing of the” production of the greatest sum of enjoyment;”—but we hear, repeatedly, constantly, of the will of God; of the voice of God; of the commands of God. To “be obedient unto his voice,”10 is the condition of favour. To hear the “sayings of Christ and do them,”11 is the means of obtaining his approbation. To “fear God and keep his commandments, is the whole duty of man.”12 Even superior intelligences are described as “doing his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word.13 In short, the whole system of moral legislation, as it is exhibited in Scripture, is a system founded upon authority. The propriety, the utility of the requisitions are not made of importance. That which is made of importance is the authority of the Being who legislates. “Thus saith the Lord,” is regarded as constituting a sufficient and a final law. So also it is with the moral instructions of Christ. “He put the truth of what he taught upon authority,”14 In the sermon on the mount, I say unto you is proposed as the sole, and sufficient, and ultimate ground of obligation. He does not say, My precepts will promote human happiness, therefore you are to obey them: but he says, They are my precepts, therefore you are to obey them. So habitually is this principle borne in mind, if we may so speak, by those who were commissioned to communicate the Divine will, that the reason of a precept is not often assigned. The assumption evidently was, that the Divine will was all that it was necessary for us to know. This is not the mode of enforcing duties which one manually adopts in addressing another. He discusses the reasonableness of his advices and the advantages of following them, as well as, perhaps, the authority from which he derives them. The difference that exists between such a mode and that which is actually adopted in Scripture, is analogous to that which exists between the mode in which a parent communicates his instructions to a young child, and that which is employed by a tutor to an intelligent youth. The tutor recommends his instructions by their reasonableness and propriety: the father founds his upon his own authority. Not that the father’s instructions are not also founded in propriety, but that this, in respect of young children, is not the ground upon which he expects their obedience. It is not the ground upon which God expects the obedience of man. We can, undoubtedly, in general perceive the wisdom of his laws, and it is doubtless right to seek out that wisdom; but whether we discover it or not, does not lessen their authority nor alter our duties.
In deference to these reasonings, then, we conclude, that the communicated will of God is the final standard of right and wrong—that wheresoever this will is made known, human duty is determined—and that neither the conclusions of philosophers, nor advantages, nor dangers, nor pleasures, nor sufferings, ought to have any opposing influence in regulating our conduct. Let it be remembered, that in morals there can be no equilibrium of authority. If the expressed will of the Deity is not our supreme rule, some other is superior. This fatal consequence is inseparable from the adoption of any other ultimate rule of conduct. The Divine law becomes the decision of a certain tribunal—the adopted rule, the decision of a superior tribunal—for that must needs be the superior which can reverse the decisions of the other. It is a consideration, too, which may reasonably alarm the inquirer, that if once we assume this power of dispensing with the Divine law, there is no limit to its exercise. If we may supersede one precept of the Deity upon one occasion, we may supersede every precept upon all occasions. Man becomes the greater authority, and God the less.
If a proposition is proved to be true, no contrary reasonings can show it to be false; and yet it is necessary to refer to such reasonings, not indeed for the sake of the truth, but for the sake of those whose conduct it should regulate. Their confidence in truth may be increased if they discover that the reasonings which assail it are fallacious. To a considerate man it will be no subject of wonder, that the supremacy of the expressed will of God is often not recognised in the writings of moralists or in the practice of life. The speculative inquirer finds, that of some of the questions which come before him, Scripture furnishes no solution, and he seeks for some principle by which all may be solved. This indeed is the ordinary coune of those who erect systems, whether in morals or in physics. The moralist acknowledges, perhaps, the authority of revelation; but in his investigations he passes away from the precepts of revelation, to some of those subordinate means by which human duties may be discovered—means which, however authorized by the Deity as subservient to his purpose of human instruction, are wholly unauthorized as ultimate standards of right and wrong. Having fixed his attention upon these subsidiary means, he practically loses sight of the Divine law which he acknowledges; and thus without any formal, perhaps without any conscious, rejection of the expressed will of God, he really makes it subordinate to inferior rules. Another influential motive to pass by the Divine precepts, operates both upon writers and upon the public:—the rein which they hold upon the desires and passions of mankind is more tight than they are willing to bear. Respecting some of these precepts we feel as the rich man of old felt; we hear the injunction and go away, if not with sorrow, yet without obedience. Here again is an obvious motive to the writer to endeavour to substitute some less rigid rule of conduct, and an obvious motive to the reader to acquiesce in it as true without a very rigid scrutiny into its foundation. To adhere with fidelity to the expressed will of Heaven, requires greater confidence in God than most men are willing to repose, or than most moralists are willing to recommend.
But whatever have been the causes, the fact is indisputable, that few or none of the systems of morality which have been offered to the world, have uniformly and consistently applied the communicated will of God in determination of those questions to which it is applicable. Some insist upon its supreme authority in general terms; others apply it in determining some questions of rectitude: but where is the work that· applies it always? Where is the moralist who holds every thing, ease, interest, reputation, expediency, “honour,”—personal and national,—in subordination to this moral law?
One source of ambiguity and of error in moral philosophy has consisted in the indeterminate use of the term,” the will of God.” It is used without reference to the mode by which that will is to be discovered—and it is in this mode that the essence of the controversy lies. We are agreed that the will of God is to be our rule: the question at issue is, What mode of discovering it should be primarily adopted? Now the term, the “will of God,” has been applied, interchangeably, to the precepts of Scripture, and to the deductions which have been made from other principles. The consequence has been that the imposing sanction, “the will of God;” has been applied to propositions of very different authority.
To inquire into the validity of all those principles which have been proposed as the standard of rectitude, would be foreign to the purpose of this essay. That principle which appears to be most recommended by its own excellence and beauty, and which obtains the greater share of approbation in the world, is the principle of directing every action so as to produce the greatest happiness—and the least misery in our power.” The particular forms of defining the doctrine are various, but they may be conveniently included in one general term—expediency.
We say that the apparent beauty and excellence of this rule of action are so captivating, its actual acceptance in the world is so great, and the reasonings by which it is supported are so acute, that if it can be shown that this rule is not the ultimate standard of right and wrong, we may safely conclude that none other which philosophy has proposed can make pretensions to such authority. The truth indeed is, that the objections to the doctrine of expediency will generally be found to apply to every doctrine which lays claim to moral supremacy—which application the reader is requested to make for himself as he passes along.
Respecting the principle of expediency—the doctrine that we should, in every action, endeavour to produce the greatest sum of human happiness—let it always be remembered that the only question is, whether it ought to be the paramount rule of human conduct. No one doubts whether it ought to influence us, or whether it is of great importance in estimating the duties of morality. The sole question is this:—When an expression of the will of God, and our calculations respecting human happiness, lead to different conclusions respecting the rectitude of an action—whether of the two shall we prefer and obey?
We are concerned only with Christian writers. Now, when we come to analyze the principles of the Christian advocates of expediency, we find precisely the result which we should expect—a perpetual vacillation between two irreconcilable doctrines. As Christians, they necessarily acknowledge the authority, and, in words at least, the supreme authority of the Divine law: as advocates of the universal application of the law of expediency, they necessarily sometimes set aside the Divine law, because they sometimes cannot deduce, from both laws, the same rule of action. Thus there is induced a continual fluctuation and uncertainty both in principles and in practical rule: a continual endeavour to “serve two masters.”
Of these fluctuations an example is given in the article “Moral Philosophy,” in Rees’s Encyclopædia,—an article in which the principles of Hartley are in a considerable degree adopted. “The Scripture precepts,” says the writer, “are in themselves the rule of life.”—“The supposed tendency of actions can never be put against the law of God as delivered to us by revelation, and should not therefore be made our chief guide.” This is very explicit. Yet the same article says, that the first great rule is, that “we should aim to direct every action so as to produce the greatest happiness and the least misery in our power.” This rule however is somewhat difficult of application, and therefore “instead of this most general rule we must substitute others, less general and subordinate to it:” of which subordinate rules, to “obey the Scripture precepts” is one!—I do not venture to presume that these writers do really mean what their words appear to mean,—that the law of God is supreme and yet that it is subordinate,—but one thing is perfectly clear, that either they make the vain attempt to “serve two masters,” or that they employ language very laxly and very dangerously.
The high language of Dr. Paley respecting expediency as a paramount law, is well known:—“Whatever is expedient is right.”15 “The obligation of every law depends upon its ultimate utility.”16 “It is the utility of any moral rule alone which constitutes the obligation of it.”17 Perjury, robbery, and murder “are not useful, and for that reason, and that reason only, are not right.”18 It is obvious that this language affirms that utility is a higher authority than the expressed will of God. If the utility of a moral rule alone constitutes the obligation of it, then is its obligation not constituted by the Divine command. If murder is wrong only because it is not useful, it is not wrong because God has said “Thou shalt not kill.”
But Paley was a Christian, and therefore could neither formally displace the Scripture precepts from their station of supremacy, nor avoid formally acknowledging that they were supreme. Accordingly he says, “There are two methods of coming at the will of God on any point: First—By his express declarations, when they are to be had, and which must be sought for in Scripture.”19 Secondly—By Expediency. And again, When Scripture precepts “are clear and positive, there is an end to all farther deliberation.”20 This makes the expressed will of God the final standard of right and wrong. And here is the vacillation, the attempt to serve two masters of which we speak: for this elevation of the express declarations of God to the supremacy, is absolutely incompatible with the doctrines that are quoted in the preceding paragraph.
These incongruities of principle are sometimes brought into operation in framing practical rules. In the chapter on Suicide, it is shown that Scripture disallows the act. Here then we might conclude that there was “an end to all further deliberation;” and yet, in the same chapter, we are told that suicide would nevertheless be justifiable if it were expedient. Respecting civil obedience, he says, the Scriptures “inculcate the duty” and “enforce the obligation;” but notwithstanding this, he pronounces that the “only ground of the subjects’ obligation” consists in expediency.21 If it consists only in expediency, the Divine law upon the subject is a dead letter. In one chapter he says that murder would be right if it was useful,22 in another, that “one word” of prohibition “from Christ is final.”23 The words of Christ cannot be final, if we are afterward to inquire whether murder is “useful” or not. One other illustration will suffice. In laying down the rights of the magistrate, as to making laws respecting religion, he makes utility the ultimate standard; so that whatever the magistrate thinks is useful to ordain, that he has a right to ordain. But in stating the subjects’ duties as to obeying laws respecting religion, he makes the commands of God the ultimate standard.24 The consequence is inevitable, that it is right for the magistrate to command an act, and right for the subject to refuse to obey it. In a sound system of morality, such contradictions would be impossible. There is a contradiction even in terms. In one place he says, “Wherever there is a right in one person, there is a corresponding obligation upon others.”25 In another place, “The right of the magistrate to ordain, and the obligation of the subject to obey, in matters of religion, may be very different.”26
Perhaps the reader will say that these inconsistencies, however they may impeach the skilfulness of the writer, do not prove chat his system is unsound, or that utility is not still the ultimate standard of rectitude. We answer, that to a Christian writer, such inconsistencies are unavoidable. He is obliged, in conformity with the principles of his religion, to acknowledge the divine, and therefore the supreme authority of Scripture; and if, in addition to this, he assumes that any other is supreme, inconsistency must ensue. For the same consequence follows the adoption of any other ultimate standard—whether sympathy, or right reason, or eternal fitness, or nature. If the writer is a Christian he cannot, without falling into inconsistencies, assert the supremacy of any of these principles: that is to say, when the precepts of Scripture dictate one action, and a reasoning from his principle dictates another, he must make his election: if he prefers his principle, Christianity is abandoned: if he prefers Scripture, his principle is subordinate: if he alternately prefers the one and the other, he falls into the vacillation and inconsistency of which we speak.
Bearing still in mind that the rule “to endeavour to produce the greatest happiness in our power,” is objectionable only when it is made an ultimate rule, the reader is invited to attend to these short considerations.
I. In computing human happiness, the advocate of expediency does not sufficiently take into the account our happiness in futurity. Nor indeed does he always take it into account at all. One definition says, “The test of the morality of an act is its tendency to promote the temporal advantage of the greatest number in the society to which we belong.” Now many things may be very expedient if death were annihilation, which may be very inexpedient now: and therefore it is not unreasonable to expect, nor an unreasonable exercise of humility to act upon the expectation, that the Divine laws may sometimes impose obligations of which we do not perceive the expediency or the use. “It may so fall out,” says Hooker, “that the reason why some laws of God were given, is neither opened nor possible to be gathered by the wit of man.”27 And Pearson says, “There are many parts of morality, as taught by revelation, which are entirely independent of an accurate knowledge of nature.”28 And Gisborne, “Our experience of God’s dispensations by no means permits us to affirm, that he always thinks fit to act in such a manner as is productive of particular expediency; much less to conclude that he wills us always to act in such a manner as we suppose would be productive of it.”29 All this sufficiently indicates that expediency is wholly inadmissible as an ultimate rule.
II. The doctrine is altogether unconnected with the Christian revelation, or with any revelation from Heaven. It was just as true, and the deductions from it just as obligatory, two or five thousand years ago as now. The alleged supreme law of morality—“Whatever is expedient is right”—might have been taught by Epictetus as well as by a modern Christian. But are we then to be told that the revelations from the Deity have conveyed no moral knowledge to man? that they make no act obligatory which was not obligatory before? that he who had the fortune to discover that “whatever is expedient is right,” possessed a moral law just as perfect as that which God has ushered into the world, and much more comprehensive?
III. If some subordinate rule of conduct were proposed,—some principle which served as an auxiliary moral guide,—I should not think it a valid objection to its truth, to be told that no sanction of the principle was to be found in the written revelation: but if some rule of conduct were proposed as being of universal obligation, some moral principle which was paramount to every other—and I discovered that this principle was unsanctioned by the written revelation, I should think this want of sanction was conclusive evidence against it: because it is not credible that a revelation from God, of which one great object was to teach mankind the moral law of God, would have been silent respecting a rule of conduct which was to be a universal guide to man. We apply these considerations to the doctrine of expediency: Scripture contain not a word upon the subject.
IV. The principles of expediency necessarily proceed upon the supposition that we are to investigate the future, and this investigation is, as every one knows, peculiarly without the limits of human sagacity: an objection which derives additional force from the circumstance that an action, in order to be expedient, “must be expedient on the whole, at the long run, in all its effects collateral and remote.”30 I do not know whether, if a man should sit down expressly to devise a moral principle which should be uncertain and difficult in its application, he could devise one that would be more difficult and uncertain than this. So that, as Dr. Paley himself acknowledges, “It is impossible to ascertain every duty by an immediate reference to public utility.”31 The reader may therefore conclude with Dr. Johnson, that “by presuming to determine what is fit and what is beneficial, they presuppose more knowledge of the universal system than man has attained, and therefore depend upon principles too complicated and extensive for our comprehension: and there can be no security in the consequence when the premises are not understood.”32
V. But whatever may be the propriety of investigating all consequences “collateral and remote,” it is certain that such an investigation is possible only in that class of moral questions which allows a man time to sit down and deliberately to think and compute. As it respects that large class of cases in which a person must decide and act in a moment, it is wholly useless. There are thousands of conjectures in life in which a man can no more stop to calculate effects collateral and remote, than he can stop to cross the Atlantic: and it is difficult to conceive that any rule of morality can be absolute and universal, which is totally inapplicable to so large a portion of human affairs.
VI. Lastly, the rule of expediency is deficient in one of the first requisites of a moral law—obviousness and palpability of sanction. What is the process by which the sanction is applied? Its advocates say, the Deity is a benevolent Being: as he is benevolent himself, it is reasonable to conclude he wills that his creatures should be benevolent to one another: this benevolence is to be exercised by adapting every action to the promotion of the “universal interest” of man: “Whatever is expedient is right:” or, God wills that we should consult expediency. Now we say that there are so many considerations placed between the rule and the act, that the practical authority of the rule is greatly diminished. It is easy to perceive that the authority of a rule will not come home to that man’s mind, who is told, respecting a given action, that its effect upon the universal interest is the only thing that makes it right or wrong. All the doubts that arise as to this effect are so many diminutions of the sanction. It is like putting half a dozen new contingencies between the act of thieving and the conviction of a jury; and every one knows that the want of certainty of penalty is a great encouragement to offences. The principle too is liable to the most extravagant abuse—or rather extravagant abuse is, in the present condition of mankind, inseparable from its general adoption. “Whatever is expedient is right,” soliloquizes the moonlight adventurer into the poultry yard: “It will tend more to the sum of human happiness that my wife and I should dine on a capon, than that the farmer should feel the satisfaction of possessing it;”—and so he mounts the hen-roost. I do not say that this hungry moralist would reason soundly, but I say that he would not listen to the philosophy which replied, “Oh, your reasoning is incomplete: you must take into account all consequences collateral and remote; and then you will find that it is more expedient, upon the whole and at the long run, that you and your wife should be hungry, than that hen-roosts should be insecure.”
It is happy, however, that this principle never can be generally applied to the private duties of man. Its abuses would be so enormous that the laws would take, as they do in fact take, better measures for regulating men’s conduct than this doctrine supplies. And happily, too, the Universal Lawgiver has not left mankind without more distinct and more influential perceptions of his will and his authority, than they could ever derive from the principles of expediency.
But an objection has probably presented itself to the reader, that the pater part of mankind have no access to the written expression of the will of God; and how, it may be asked, can that be the final standard of right and wrong for the human race, of which the majority of the race have never heard? The question is reasonable and fair.
We answer then, first, that supposing most men to be destitute of a communication of the Divine will, it does not affect the obligations of those who do possess it. That communication is the final law to me, whether my African brother enjoys it or not. Every reason by which the supreme authority of the law is proved, is just as applicable to those who do enjoy the communication of it, whether that communication is enjoyed by many or by few: and this, so far as the argument is concerned, appears to be a sufficient answer. If any man has no direct access to his Creator’s will, let him have recourse to “eternal fitnesses,” or to “expediency;” but his condition does not affect that of another man who does possess this access.
But our real reply to the objection is, that they who are destitute of Scripture are not destitute of a direct communication to the will of God. The proof of this position must be deferred to a subsequent chapter; and the reader is solicited for the present to allow us to assume its truth. This direct communication may be limited, it may be incomplete, but some communication exists; enough to assure them that some things are acceptable to the Supreme Power, and that some are not; enough to indicate a distinction between right and wrong; enough to make them moral agents, and reasonably accountable to our common Judge. If these principles are true, and especially if the amount of the communication is in many cases considerable, it is obvious that it will be of great value in the direction of individual conduct. We say of individual conduct, because it is easy to perceive that it would not often subserve the purposes of him who frames public rules of morality. A person may possess a satisfactory assurance in his own mind, that a given action is inconsistent with the Divine will, but that assurance is not conveyed to another, unless he participates in the evidence upon which it is founded. That which is wanted in order to supply public rules for human conduct, is a publicly avouched authority; so that a writer, in deducing those roles, has to apply ultimately to that standard which God has publicly sanctioned.
See Footnotes here.
All Sub-Works of Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).:
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- Preface to the American Edition.
- Introductory Notices.
- Moral Obligations.
- Standard of Right and Wrong.
- Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.
- Standard of Right and Wrong Footnotes.
- Collateral Observations.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God.
- Immediate Communication of the Will of God Footnotes.