Moral Obligations.

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


  THERE is little hope of proposing a definition of moral obligation which shall be satisfactory to every reader; partly because the phrase is the representative of different notions in individual minds. No single definition can, it is evident, represent various notions; and there are probably no means by which the notions of individuals respecting moral obligation, can be adjusted to one standard. Accordingly, while attempts to define it have been very numerous, all probably have been unsatisfactory to the majority of mankind.

  Happily this question, like many others upon which the world is unable to agree, is of little practical importance. Many who dispute about the definition, coincide in their judgments of what we are obliged to do and to forbear: and so long as the individual knows that he is actually the subject of moral obligation, and actually responsible to a superior power, it is not of much consequence whether he can critically explain in what moral obligation consists.

  The writer of these pages, therefore, makes no attempts at strictness of definition. It is sufficient for his purpose that man is under an obligation to obey his Creator; and if any one curiously asks “Why?”—he answers, that one reason at least is, that the Deity possesses the power, and evinces the intention, to call the human species to account for their actions, and to punish or reward them.

  There may be, and I believe there are, higher grounds upon which a sense of moral obligation may be founded; such as the love of goodness for its own sake, or love and gratitude to God for his beneficence: nor is it unreasonable to suppose that such grounds of obligation are especially approved by the universal Parent of mankind.

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