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
THAT in estimating our duties in life we ought to pay regard to what is useful and beneficial,—to what is likely to promote the welfare of ourselves and of others,—can need little argument to prove. Yet if it were required, it may be easily shown that this regard to utility is recommended or enforced in the expression of the Divine will. That will requires the exercise of pure and universal benevolence; which benevolence, is exercised in consulting the interests, the welfare, and the happiness of mankind. The dictates of utility, therefore, are frequently no other than the dictates of benevolence.
Or, if we derive the obligations of utility from considerations connected with our reason, they do not appear much less distinct. To say that to consult utility is right, is almost the same as to say it is right to exercise our understandings. The daily and hourly use of reason is to discover what is fit to be done; that is, what is useful and expedient: and since it is manifest that the Creator, in endowing us with the faculty, designed that we should exercise it, it is obvious that in this view also a reference to expediency is consistent with the Divine will.
When (higher laws being silent) a man judges that of two alternatives one is dictated by greater utility, that dictate constitutes an obligation upon him to prefer it. I should not hold a land-owner innocent who knowingly persisted in adopting a bad mode of raising corn; nor should I hold the person innocent who opposed an improvement in ship-building, or who obstructed the formation of a turnpike road that would benefit the public. These are questions, not of prudence merely, but of morals also.
Obligations resulting from utility possess great extent of application to political affairs. There are indeed some public concerns in which the moral law, antecedently, decides nothing. Whether a duty shall be imposed, or a charter granted, or a treaty signed, are questions which are perhaps to be determined by expediency alone: but when a public man is of the judgment that any given measure will tend to the general good, he is immoral if he opposes that measure. The immorality may indeed be made out by a somewhat different process:—such a man violates those duties of benevolence which religion imposes: he probably disregards, too, his sense of obligation; for if he be of the judgment that a given measure will tend to the general good, conscience will scarcely be silent in whispering that he ought not to oppose it.
It is sufficiently evident, upon the principles which have hitherto been advanced, that .considerations of utility are only so far obligatory as they are in accordance with the moral law. Pursuing, however, the method which has been adopted in the two last chapters, it may be observed, that this subserviency of utility to the Divine will appears to be required by the written revelation. That habitual preference of futurity to the present time which Scripture exhibits indicates that our interests here should be held in subordination to our interests hereafter: and as these higher interests are to be consulted by the means which revelation prescribes, it is manifest that those means are to be pursued, whatever we may suppose to be their effects upon the present welfare of ourselves or of other men. “If in this life only we have hope in God, then are we of all men most miserable.” It certainly is not, in the usual sense of the word, expedient to be most miserable. And why did they thus sacrifice expediency? Because the communicated will of God required that course of life by which human interests were apparently sacrificed. It will be perceived that these considerations result from the truth (too little regarded in talking of “expediency” and “general benevolence”), that utility, as it respects mankind, cannot be properly consulted without taking into account our interests in futurity. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” is a maxim of which all would approve if we had no concerns with another life. That which might be very expedient if death were annihilation, may be very inexpedient now.
“If ye say we will not dwell in this land, neither obey the voice of the Lord your God, saying, No; but we will go into the land of Egypt, where we shall see no war;” “nor have hunger of bread; and there will we dwell; it shall come to pass that the sword, which ye feared, shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine, whereof ye were afraid, shall follow close after you in Egypt, and there ye shall die.”1—“We will burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and pour out drink—offerings unto her, for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword, and by the famine.”—Therefore, “I will watch over them for evil, and not for good.”2 These reasoners argued upon the principle of making expediency the paramount law; and it may be greatly doubted whether those who argue upon that principle now have better foundation for their reasoning than those of old. Here was the prospect of advantage founded, as they thought, upon experience. One course of action had led (so they reasoned) to war—and famine, and another to plenty, and health, and general well-being; yet still our Universal Lawgiver required them to disregard all these conclusions of expediency, and simply to conform to His will.
After all, the general experience is, that what is most expedient with respect to another world is most expedient with respect to the present. There may be cases, and there have been, in which the Divine will may require an absolute renunciation of our present interests; as the martyr who maintains his fidelity sacrifices all possibility of advantage now. But these are unusual cases; and the experience of the contrary is so general, that the truth has been reduced to a proverb. Perhaps in nineteen cases out of twenty, he best consults his present welfare who endeavours to secure it in another world. “By the wise contrivance of the Author of nature, virtue is upon all ordinary occasions, even with regard to this life, real wisdom, and the surest and readiest means of obtaining both safety and advantage.”3 “Were it however otherwise, the truth of our principles would not be shaken. Men’s happiness, and especially the happiness of good men, does not consist merely in external things. The promise of a hundred fold in this present life may still be fulfilled in mental felicity; and if it could not be, who is the man that would exclude from his computations the prospect, in the world to come, of life everlasting?
In the endeavour to produce the greatest sum of happiness, or, which is the same thing, in applying the dictates of utility to our conduct in life, there is one species of utility that is deplorably disregarded both in private and public affairs,—that which respects the religious and moral welfare of mankind. If you hear a politician expatiating upon the good tendency of a measure, he tells you how greatly it will promote the interests of commerce, or how it will enrich a colony, or how it will propitiate a powerful party, or how it will injure a nation whom he dreads; but you hear probably not one word of inquiry whether it will corrupt the character of those who execute the measure, or whether it will introduce vices into the colony, or whether it will present new temptations to the virtue of the public. And yet these considerations are perhaps by far the most important in the view even of enlightened expediency; for it is a desperate game to endeavour to benefit a people by means which may diminish their virtue. Even such a politician would probably assent to the unapplied proposition, “the virtue of a people is the best security for their welfare.” It is the same in private life. You hear a parent who proposes to change his place of residence, or to engage in a new profession or pursuit, discussing the comparative conveniencies of the proposed situation, the prospect of profit in the new profession, the pleasures which will result from the new pursuit; but you hear probably not one word of inquiry whether the change of residence will deprive his family of virtuous and beneficial society which will not be replaced,—whether the contemplated profession will not tempt his own virtue or diminish his usefulness,—or whether his children will not be exposed to circumstances that will probably taint the purity of their minds. And yet this parent will acknowledge, in general terms, that “nothing can compensate for the loss of religious and moral character.” Such persons surely make very inaccurate computations of expediency.
As to the actual conduct of political affairs, men frequently legislate as if there was no such thing as religion or morality in the world; or as if, at any rate, religion and morality had no concern with affairs of state. I believe that a sort of shame (a false and vulgar shame no doubt) would be felt by many members of senates, in directly opposing religious or moral considerations to prospects of advantage. In our own country, those who are most willing to do this receive, from vulgar persons, a name of contempt for their absurdity! How inveterate must be the impurity of a system which teaches men to regard as ridiculous that system which only is sound!
1 Jer. xlii.
3 Dr. Smith: Theo. Mor. Sent.
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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.