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 reader is requested to regard the present chapter as parenthetical. The parenthesis is inserted here, because the writer does not know where more appropriately to place it.
THIS identity is a truth to which we do not sufficiently advert either in our habitual sentiments or in our practice. There are many persons who speak of religious duties as if there were something sacred or imperative in their obligation that does not belong to duties of morality,—many, who would perhaps offer up their lives rather than profess a belief in a false religious dogma, but who would scarcely sacrifice an hour’s gratification rather than violate the moral law of love. It is therefore of importance to remember, that the authority which imposes moral obligations, mad religious obligations is one and the same—the will of God. Fidelity to God is just as truly violated by a neglect of his moral laws as by a compromise of religious principles. Religion and morality are abstract terms, employed to indicate different classes of those duties which the Deity has imposed upon mankind: but they are all imposed by Him, and all are enforced by equal authority. Not indeed that the violation of every particular portion of the Divine will involves equal guilt, but that each violation is equally a disregard of the Divine authority. Whether, therefore, fidelity be required to a point of doctrine or of practice, to theology or to morals, the obligation is the same. It is the Divine requisition which constitutes this obligation, and not the nature of the duty required: so that, while I think a Protestant does no more than his duty when he prefers death to a profession of the Roman Catholic faith, I think also that every Christian who believes that Christ has prohibited swearing, does no more than his duty when he prefers death to taking an oath.
I would especially solicit the reader to bear in mind this principle of the identity of the authority of moral and religious obligations, because he may otherwise imagine that, in some of the subsequent pages, the obligation of a moral law is too strenuously insisted on, and that fidelity to it is to be purchased at “too great a sacrifice of ease and enjoyment.”
THE DIVINE ATTRIBUTES.
The purpose for which a reference is here made to these sacred subjects, is to remark upon the unfitness of attempting to deduce human duties from the attributes of God. It is not indeed to be affirmed that no illustration of those duties can be derived from them, but that they are too imperfectly cognizable by our perceptions to enable us to refer to them for specific moral rules. The truth indeed is, that we do not accurately and distinctly know what the Divine attributes are. We say that God is merciful: but if we attempt to define, with strictness, what the term merciful means, we shall find it a difficult, perhaps an impracticable task: and especially we shall have a difficult task if, after the definition, we attempt to reconcile every appearance which presents itself in the world, with our notions of the attribute of mercy. I would speak with reverence when I say, that we cannot always perceive the mercifulness of the Deity in his administrations, either towards his rational or his irrational creation. So again in respect of the attribute of justice: who can determinately define in what this attribute consists? Who, especially, can prove that the Almighty designs that we should always be able to trace his justice in his government? We believe that he is unchangeable: but what is the sense in which we understand the term? Do we mean that the attribute involves the necessity of an unchanging system of moral government, or that the Deity cannot make alterations in, or additions to, his laws for mankind? We cannot mean this, for the evidence of revelation disproves it.
Now if it be true that the Divine attributes, and the uniform accordancy of the Divine dispensations with our notions of those attributes, are not sufficiently within our powers of investigation to enable us to frame accurate premises for our reasoning, it is plain that we cannot always trust with safety to our conclusions. We cannot deduce rules for our conduct from the Divine attributes, without being very liable to error; and the liability will increase in proportion as the deduction attempts critical accuracy.
Yet this is a rock upon which the judgments of many have suffered wreck, a quicksand where many have been involved in inextricable difficulty. One, because he cannot reconcile the commands to exterminate a people with his notions of the attribute of mercy, questions the truth of the Mosaic writings. One, because he finds wars permitted by the Almighty of old, concludes that, as he is unchangeable, they cannot be incompatible with his present or his future will. One, on the supposition of this unchangeableness, perplexes himself because the dispensations of God and his laws have been changed; and vainly labours, by classifying these laws into those which result from his attributes and those which do not, to vindicate the immutability of God. We have no business with these things: and I will venture to affirm that he who will take nothing upon trust—who will exercise no faith—who will believe in the divine authority of no rule, and in the truth of no record, which he is unable to reconcile with the Divine attributes—must be consigned to hopeless Pyrrhonism.
The lesson which such considerations teach is a simple but an important one: That our exclusive business is to discover the actual present will of God, without inquiring why his will is such as it is, or why it has ever been different; and without seeking to deduce, from our notions of the Divine attributes, rules of conduct which are more safely and more certainly discovered by other means.
The definitions which have been proposed of virtue have necessarily been both numerous and various, because many and discordant standards of rectitude have been advanced; and virtue must, in every man’s system, essentially consist in conforming the conduct to the standard which he thinks is the true one. This must be true of those systems, at least, which make virtue consist in doing right.—Adam Smith indeed says, that “Virtue is excellence; something uncommonly great and beautiful, which rises far above what is vulgar and ordinary.”1 By which it would appear that virtue is a relative quality, depending not upon some perfect or permanent standard, but upon the existing practice of mankind. Thus the action which possessed no virtue among a good community, might possess much in a bad one. The practice which “rose far above” the ordinary practice of one nation, might be quite common in another: and if mankind should become much worse than they are now, that conduct would be eminently virtuous among them which now is not virtuous at all. That such a definition of virtue is likely to lead to very imperfect practice is plain; for what is the probability that a man will attain to that standard which God proposes, if his utmost estimate of virtue rises no higher than to an indeterminate superiority over other men?
Our definition of virtue necessarily accords with the principles of morality which have been advanced in the preceding chapter: Virtue is conformity with the standard of rectitude; which standard consists primarily in the expressed will of God.
Virtue, as it respects the meritoriousness of the agent, is another consideration. The quality of an action is one thing, the desert of the agent is another. The business of him who illustrates moral rules, is not with the agent, but with the act. He must state what the moral law pronounces to be right and wrong: but it is very possible that an individual may do what is right without any virtue, because there may be no rectitude in his motives and intentions. He does a virtuous act, but he is not a virtuous agent.
Although the concern of a work like the present is evidently with the moral character of actions without reference to the motives of the agent, yet the remark may be allowed, that there is frequently a sort of inaccuracy and unreasonableness in the judgments which we form of the deserts of other men. . We regard the act too much, and the intention too little. The footpad who discharges a pistol at a traveller and fails in his aim, is just as wicked as if he had killed him; yet we do not feel the same degree of indignation at his crime. So, too, of a person who does good. A man who plunges into a river to save a child from drowning, impresses the parents with a stronger sense of his deserts than if, with the same exertions, he had failed.—We should endeavour to correct this inequality of judgment, and in forming our estimates of human conduct, should refer, much more than we commonly do, to what the agent intends. It should habitually be borne in mind, and especially with reference to our own conduct, that to have been unable to execute an ill intention deducts nothing from our guilt; and that at that tribunal where intention and action will be both regarded, it will avail little if we can only say that we have done no evil. Nor let it be less remembered, with respect to those who desire to do good, but have not the power, that their virtue is not diminished by their want of ability. I ought perhaps to be as grateful to the man who feelingly commiserates my sufferings but cannot relieve them, as to him who sends me money or a physician. The mite of the widow of old was estimated even more highly than the greater offerings of the rich.
1 Theo. Mor. Sent.
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.