Subordinate Standards of Right and Wrong.

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


  THE written expression of the Divine will does not contain, and no writings can contain, directions for our conduct in every circumstance of life. If the precepts of Scripture were multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold, there would still arise a multiplicity of questions to which none of them would specifically apply. Accordingly, there are some subordinate authorities, to which, as can be satisfactorily shown, it is the will of God that we should refer. He who does refer to them and regulates his conduct by them, conforms to the will of God.

  To a son who is obliged to regulate all his actions by his father’s will, there are two ways in which he may practise obedience—one, by receiving, upon each subject, his father’s direct instructions, and the other, by receiving instructions from those whom his father commissions to teach him. The parent may appoint a governor, and enjoin that, upon all questions of a certain kind the son shall conform to his instructions: and if the son does this, he as truly and really performs his father’s will, and as strictly makes that will the guide of his conduct, as if he received the instructions immediately from his parent. But if the father have laid down certain general rules for his son’s observance, as that he shall devote ten hours a day to study and not less—although the governor should recommend or even command him to devote fewer hours, he may not comply; for if he does, the governor and not his father is his supreme guide. The subordination is destroyed.

  This case illustrates, perhaps with sufficient precision, the situation of mankind with respect to moral rules. Our Creator has given direct laws, some general and some specific. These are of final authority. But he has also sanctioned, or permitted an application to, other rules; and in conforming to these, so long as we hold them in subordination to his laws, we perform his will.

  Of these subordinate rules it were possible to enumerate many. Perhaps, indeed, few principles have been proposed as “the fundamental rules of virtue,” which may not rightly be brought into use by the Christian in regulating his conduct in life: for the objection to many of these principles is, not so much that they are useless, as that they are unwarranted as paramount laws. “Sympathy” may be of use, and “nature” may be of use, and “self-love,” and “benevolence;” and, to those who know what it means, “eternal fitnesses” too.

  Some of the subordinate rules of conduct it will be proper hereafter to notice, in order to discover, if we can, how far their authority extends and where it ceases. The observations that we shall have to offer upon them may conveniently be made under these heads: The Law of the Land: The Law of Nature: The Promotion of human Happiness, or Expediency: The Law of Nations: The Law of Honour.

  These observations will however necessarily be preceded by an inquiry into the great principles of human duty as they are delivered in Scripture, and into the reality of that communication of the Divine will to the mind, which the reader has been requested to allow us to assume.

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