The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)
Whence Do We Derive Our Notion of The Moral Quality of Actions?
To this question several answers have been given. Some of them we shall proceed to consider.
1. Is our notion of right and wrong a modification of any other idea?
The only modifications of which an idea is susceptible, are, first, that of greater or less vividness of impression, or, secondly, that of simplicity or of composition. Thus, the quality of beauty may impress us more or less forcibly, in the contemplation of different objects; or, on the other hand, the idea of beauty may be simple, or else combined, in our conceptions, with the idea of utility.
Now, if our notion of right and wrong be a modification of some other idea, in the first sense, then one degree of the original quality will be destitute of any moral element and another degree of it will possess a moral element; and by ascending higher in the scale, it may at last lose all its original character, and possess another, having no remains of resemblance to itself. This would be to say, that a quality, by becoming more intense, ceased to be itself; as if a triangle, by becoming more perfect as a triangle, at last became a square. Thus, if it be said, that the idea of right and wrong is a modification of the idea of beauty, then the same object, if beautiful in one degree, would have no moral quality; if beautiful in another degree, would begin to be virtuous; and, if beautiful in the highest degree, would cease to be beautiful, and be purely virtuous or holy. What meaning could be attached to such an affirmation, I am not able to discover.
The other meaning of a modification of an idea, is, that it is compounded with some other idea. Now, suppose our notion of right and wrong to be a modification in this latter sense. Then this notion either enters into the original elements of the compound idea, or it does not. If it does, then it is already present; and this supposition does not account for its existence. If it does not enter into the elements of the compound idea, then these elements must exist either merely combined, but each possessing its original character, in which combination the moral idea is not involved; or else they must lose their original character. and be merely the stated antecedents to another idea, which is an idea like neither of them, either separately or combined. In this latter case; it is manifest, that the consequent of an antecedent is no modification of the antecedent, but an entirely different subject, coming into existence under these particular circumstances, and in obedience to the laws of its own organization. Do we ever term a salt a modification of an acid, or of an alkali, or of an acid and alkali united? Is the explosive power of gunpowder a modification of the spark and the gunpowder? We think, then, it may be safely concluded, that the notion of right and wrong is not a modification of any other idea.
If any one assert, that this idea universally ensues upon the combination of two other ideas, it will become him to show what those two ideas are, neither of which involves the notion of right and wrong, but upon the combination of which, this notion always arises, while the original elements which precede it, entirely disappear.
2. Is our notion of the moral quality of actions derived from an exercise of the judgment?
Judgment is that act of the mind, by which, a subject and a predicate being known, we affirm, that the predicate belongs to the subject. Thus, he who knows what grass is, and what green is, may affirm that grass is green. But in this act of the mind, the notion of the two things of which the affirmation is made, must exist before the act of judgment can be exerted. A man who had no notion either of grass, or of: green, could never affirm the one of the other. And so of any other instance of this act. A man who had no notion of right or of wrong, could never affirm either quality of any subject; much less could he, by this faculty, acquire the original idea. And thus, in general, the judgment only affirms a relation to exist between two notions which previously existed in the mind; but it can give us no original notions of quality, either in morals or in any thing else.
3. Is our notion of the moral quality of actions derived from association?
The term association is used to designate two habits of mind considerably alike. The first is that, by which the sight or recollection of one object calls to recollection some other object, to which it stands in some particular relation. Thus, the sight of a hearse may recall to recollection the death of a friend; or the sound of his native language, in a foreign country, may awaken in the breast of an exile all the recollections of home. The second case is, where a particular emotion, belonging to one train of circumstances, is awakened by another, with which it has no necessary connection; and this first emotion comes at last to be awakened by this accidental, instead of by the necessary antecedent. Thus, the countenance of a person may be suited to awaken no emotion of pleasure in itself; but, if I become acquainted with him, and am pleased with his moral and intellectual character, a degree of pleasure is, at last, excited by his countenance, which, in the end, appeals to me agreeable, or, it may be, beautiful.
Now, in both these cases, it is evident that no new idea is gained. In the one case, a well known idea is revived; in the other, two known ideas are connected in a new relation; but this is all. Association is the faculty by which we transfer; but we can transfer nothing which did not previously exist. We could never use the idea of right and wrong by association, unless we had already acquired it. In the acts of judgment and association, therefore, as the existence of the notion must be presupposed, neither of these acts will account for the origin of the notion itself.
4. Is our notion of the moral quality of actions derived from the idea of the greatest amount of happiness?
Thus, it is said, that our notion of right and wrong is derived from our idea of productiveness of happiness, or, in other words, that an action is right or wrong because it is productive or not productive of the greatest amount of happiness.
When the affirmative of this question is asserted, it is, I presume, taken for granted, that the idea of right and wrong, and of productiveness of the greatest amount of happiness, are two distinct ideas. If they be not, then one cannot be derived from the other; for nothing can correctly be said to be a cause of itself. We shall fore, consider them as different ideas, and inquire, in what sense it is true that the one is the cause of the other.
When we speak of two events in nature, of which one is the cause of the other, we use the word cause in one of the two following senses. First, we use it to denote stated antecedent merely; as when we say that sensation is the cause of perception, or, that a man perceives an external object, because an impression is made upon an organ of sense. Secondly, we use it to signify that the event of change of which we speak may be referred to some law or fact, more general than itself. We say, in other words, that the fact in question is a species under some genus, with which it agrees as to generic qualities; and from which it is distinguished by its specific differences. Thus, when asked why a stone falls to the earth, we reply, because all matter is reciprocally attractive to all other matter. This is the generic fact, under which the fact in question is to be comprehended; and its specific difference is, that it is a particular form of matter, attracted by a particular form of matter, and probably unlike the matter of the planets, the comets, or the sun.
First. When it is said that an action is right, because it is productive of the greatest amount of happiness, suppose because to be used in the first of these senses. It will then mean, that we are so constituted, that the idea of the greatest amount of happiness is always the stated antecedent to the idea of right, or moral obligation. Now, this is a question purely of fact. It does not admit of a reason à priori. And, if it be the fact, it must be the universal fact; that is to say, this consequent must always, under similar conditions, be preceded by this antecedent, and this antecedent be followed by this consequent.
1. To facts, then, let us appeal. Is it a fact, that we are conscious of the existence of this connection? When we are conscious that an act is right, is this consciousness preceded by a conviction that this action will be productive of the greatest amount of happiness? When we say it is wrong to lie or to steal, do we find this consciousness preceded by the notion, that lying or stealing will not produce the greatest amount of happiness? When we say that a murderer deserves death, do we find this notion preceded by the other, that murder will not produce the greatest amount of happiness, and that putting a murderer to death will produce it? When we say that a man ought to obey God, his Creator and Preserver, do we find this conviction preceded by the other at the exercise of this affection will produce the greatest amount of happiness? Now, I may have greatly mistaken the nature of moral affections; but I am much deceived if many persons will not be found, who will declare, that, often as they have formed these judgments, the idea of the greatest amount of happiness never actually entered into their conception.
2. Or, take the case of children. When you would impress upon a child the duty of obeying its parents, or of loving God, do you begin by exposing to it the idea of the greatest amount of happiness? Are we obliged to make use of this antecedent, in order to produce this subsequent? If so, it surely would take a much longer time than is actually required, to produce in a child any moral sensibility. Do we not find children, well instructed into the consciousness of right and wrong, who could not be made to comprehend the notion of the greatest amount of happiness?
3. How do we attempt to arouse the consciences of the heathen? When we tell them that they ought to obey God, and believe on Jesus Christ, do we begin by explaining to them that this course of life will produce the greatest amount of happiness? Suppose we could never arouse them to duty, until we had produced a conviction of the amount of happiness which would result to the universe from piety, would a single one of them ever listen to us long enough to understand our doctrine?
4. Does the Bible any where assert, that the conviction of the greatest amount of happiness is necessary to the existence of moral obligation? If I mistake not, it presents a very different view of the subject. It declares that the heathen are without excuse. But why? Because disobedience to God interferes with the greatest amount of happiness? No, but for a very different reason: "Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath showed it unto them; so that they are without excuse." Rom. 1:19-20. St. Paul here seems to assume, that the revelation of God's eternal power and divinity, and the manifestation of his will, are sufficient, of themselves, without any other consideration, to make whatever he shall command obligatory upon his creatures.
It seems, then, to me, by no means proved, that an action is right because it is productive of the greatest amount of happiness; if we mean by it that, in our conceptions, the one idea is the stated antecedent to the other.
Secondly. But let us take the other meaning of because. Suppose it said, that the idea of moral obligation is an idea comprehended under, and to be referred to, a more general idea, namely, that of the productiveness of the greatest amount of happiness. Now, if this be the case, then, manifestly; either the notion of the greatest amount of happiness, and the notion of right, must be equally extensive; that is, must extend precisely to the same number of individual instances: or else their extent must be different; that is, the generic notion of the greatest amount of happiness must comprehend cases which are excluded from its species, the idea of right. If the latter be the case, then there will be some cases in which an action would product the greatest amount of happiness, which would not contain the moral element; and, besides, if this were the case, it would become those who make this assertion, to show what is that other element, which, combining with the idea of the greatest amount of happiness, designates the subordinate and different idea, as the idea of moral obligation. This, however, would not be attempted, and it will be at once admitted, that these two ideas are, in their nature, coextensive; that is, that whatever is productive of the greatest amount of happiness, is right, and whatever is right, is productive of the greatest amount of happiness.
Let us suppose it then to be assumed, that the terms are precisely coextensive, viz., that they apply exactly to the same actions and in the same degrees. It would then be difficult to assign a meaning to the word because, corresponding to either of the senses above stated. Nor, if two terms are precisely coextensive, do I see how it is possible to discover which of the two is to be referred to the other: or, whether either is to be referred to either. If A and B are equally extensive, I do not see how we can determine whether A is to be referred to B, or B to be referred to A.
The only other meaning which I can conceive as capable of being attached to the assertion, is this; that we are not under moral obligation to perform any action, unless it be productive of the greatest amount of happiness; thus making moral obligation rest upon this other idea, that of the greatest amount of happiness.: Now, if this be asserted, it is, surely, from what has been said above, not self-evident; for we manifestly do not, instinctively and universally, as soon as this connection is asserted, yield our assent to it, nor is it absurd to deny it; and, therefore, the assertion is capable of proof, and we may justly demand the proof before we believe it. Let us then, examine the proof on which it rests.
It is, however, to be remarked, that, if the assertion be true, that we are under obligation to perform an action only on the ground that it is productive of the greatest good, the assertion must be true in its widest sense. It must apply to actions affecting our relations, not only to man, but also to God; for these are equally comprehended within the notion of moral obligation. And thus, the assertion is, that we are not under allegation to perform any action whatever, under any circumstances, unless it be productive of the greatest amount of happiness.
I. It is said, that these two always coincide; that is, that we always are under obligation to do whatever is productive of the greatest amount of happiness; and that, whatever we are under obligation to do, is productive of the greatest amount of happiness. Now, granting the premises, I do not see that the conclusion would follow. It is possible to conceive, that God may have created moral agents under obligations to certain courses of conduct, and have so arranged the system of the universe, that the following of these courses shall be for the best, without making our obligation to rest at all upon their tendency to produce the greatest amount of happiness.
A parent may require a child to do that which will be or the good of the family; and yet there may be other reasons besides this, which render it the duty of the child to obey his parent.
2. But, secondly, how do we know that these premises are true — that whatever we are under obligation to do, is productive of the greatest amount of happiness? It never can be known, unless we know the whole history of this universe from everlasting to everlasting. And, besides, we know that God always acts right, that is, deals with all beings according to their deserts; but whether he always acts simply to promote the greatest happiness, I do not know that he has told us. His government could not be more perfectly right than it is; but whether it could have involved less misery, or have produced more happiness, I do not know that we have the means of ascertaining. As, therefore, the one quantity, so to speak, is fixed, that is, is as great as it can be, while we do not certainly know that the other is as great as it can be we cannot affirm that right and the greatest amount of happiness always coincide. Nor, that we are under obligation to do nothing, unless it would tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness.
3. Besides, suppose we are under no obligation to do any thing unless it were productive of the greatest amount of happiness, it would follow that we are under no obligation to obey God, unless the production of the greatest amount of happiness were the controlling and universal principle of his government. That is, if his object, in creating and governing the universe, were any other, or, if it were doubtful whether it might not. be any other, our obligation to obedience would either be annihilated, or would be contingent; that is, it would be inversely as the degree of doubt which might exist. Now, as I have before remarked, this may, or may not, be the ultimate end of God's government; it may be his own pleasure, or his own glory, or some other end, which he has not seen fit to reveal to us; and, therefore, on the principle which we are discussing, our obligation to obedience seems a matter yet open for discussion. Now, if I mistake not, this is wholly at variance with the whole tenor of Scripture and reason. I do not know that the Scriptures ever give us a reason why we ought to obey God, aside from his. existence and attributes, or that they ever put this subject in a light susceptible of a question.
To this view of the subject, the following remarks of Bishop Butler manifestly tend: "Perhaps divine goodness, with which, if I mistake not, we make very free in our speculations, may not be a bare single disposition to produce happiness; but a disposition to make the good, the faithful, the honest man happy. Perhaps an infinitely perfect mind may be pleased with seeing his creatures behave suitably with the nature which he has given them, to the relations in which he has placed them to each other, and to that in which they stand to himself; that relation to himself, which during their existence is ever necessary, and which is the most important one of all. I say, an infinitely perfect mind may be pleased with this moral piety of moral agents in and for itself as well as upon account of its being essentially conducive to the happiness of his creation. Of the whole end for which God made and thus governs the world, may be utterly beyond the reach of our faculties: there may be somewhat in it, as impossible for us to have any conception of, as for a blind man to have a conception of colors." Analogy, part 1, ch. 2.
Again. "Some men seem to think the only character of the Author of nature, to be that of single, absolute benevolence. This, considered as a principle of action, and infinite in degree, is a disposition to produce the greatest possible happiness, without regard to persons' behavior, otherwise than as such regard would produce the highest degrees of it. And, supposing this to be the only character of God, veracity and justice in him would be nothing but benevolence, conducted by wisdom. Now, surely this ought not to be asserted, unless it can be proved; for we should speak with cautious reverence upon such a subject. There may possibly be, in the creation, beings, to whom the Author of nature manifests himself under this most amiable of all characters, this of infinite, absolute benevolence; for it is the most amiable, supposing it is not, as perhaps it is not, incompatible with justice; but he manifests himself to us under the character of a Righteous Governor. He may, consistently with this, be simply and absolutely benevolent, in the sense now explained, but he is, for he has given us a proof, in the constitution and government of the world, that he is, a Governor over servants, as he rewards and punishes us for our actions." Analogy, ch. 3.
"Nay, farther, were treachery, violence, and injustice, no otherwise vicious, than as foreseen likely to produce an overbalance of misery to society, then, if a man could procure to himself as great advantage by an act of injustice, as the whole foreseen inconvenience likely to be brought upon others by it would amount to, such a piece of injustice would not be faulty or vicious at all; because it would be no more than, in any other case, for a man to prefer his own satisfaction to another's in equal degrees. The fact then appears to be, that we are constituted so as to condemn falsehood, unprovoked violence, injustice, and to approve of benevolence to some in preference to others, distracted from all consideration which conduct is likeliest to produce an overbalance of happiness or misery. And. therefore, were the Author of nature to propose nothing to himself as an end, but the production of happiness, were his moral character merely that of Benevolence, yet ours is not so. Upon that supposition, indeed, the only reason of his giving us the above-mentioned approbation of benevolence to some persons, rather than others, and disapprobation of falsehood, unprovoked violence, and injustice, must be that he foresaw this constitution of our nature would produce more happiness, than forming us with a temper of mere general benevolence. But still, since this is our constitution, falsehood, violence, injustice, must be vice in us, and benevolence to some, preferably to others, must be virtue, abstracted from all consideration of the overbalance of evil or good which they appear likely to produce.
"Now, if human creatures are endued with such a moral nature as we have been explaining, or with a moral faculty, the nature of which is action, moral government must consist in rendering them happy or unhappy, in rewarding or punishing them, as they follow, neglect, or depart from, the moral rule of action, interwoven in their nature, or suggested and enforced by this moral faculty, in rewarding or punishing them on account of their so doing." Second Dissertation on Virtue.
For these reasons, I think it is not proved that an action is right because it is productive of the greatest amount of happiness. It may be so, or it may not, but we ought not to believe it to be so without proof; and it may even be doubted whether we are in possession of the media of proof, that is, whether it is a question fairly within the reach of the human faculties; and, so far as we can learn from the Scriptures, I think their testimony is decidedly against the supposition. To me, the Scriptures seem explicitly to declare, that the will of our God alone is sufficient to create the obligation to obedience in all his creatures; and that this will, of itself, precludes every other inquiry. This seems to be the view of St. Paul, in the passage which we have quoted, as well as in several other places, in his Epistle to the Romans. To the same import is the prayer of our Savior, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes; even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight."
It seems, therefore, to me, that these explanations of the origin of our moral sentiments are unsatisfactory. I believe the idea of a moral quality in actions to be ultimate, to arise under such circumstances as have been appointed by our Creator, and that we can assign for it no other reason, than that such is his will concerning us.
If this be true, our only business will be, to state the circumstances under which our moral notions arise. In doing this, it would be presumption in me to expect that 1 shall be able to give an account of this subject more satisfactory to others, than theirs has been to me. I merely offer it as that which seems to me most accurately to correspond with the phenomena.
The view which I take of this subject is briefly as follows:
1. It is manifest to every one, that we all stand in various and dissimilar relations to all the sentient beings created and uncreated, with which we are acquainted Among our relations to created beings are those of man to man, or that of substantial equality, of parent and child, of benefactor and recipient, of husband and wife, of brother and brother, citizen and citizen, citizen and magistrate, and a thousand others.
2. Now, it seems to me, that, as soon as a human being comprehends the relation in which two human beings stand to each other, there arises in his mind a consciousness of moral obligation, connected, by our Creator, with the very conception of this relation. And the fact is the same, whether he be one of the parties or not. The nature of this feeling is, that the one ought to exercise certain dispositions towards the others to whom he is thus related: and to act towards them in a manner corresponding with those dispositions.
3. The nature 6f these dispositions varies, of course, pith the relations. Thus, those of a parent to a child are different from those of a child to a parent; those of a benefactor to a recipient, from those of a recipient to a benefactor: and both of them differ from that of a brother to a brother, or of a master to a servant. But, different as these may be from each other, they are all pervaded by the same generic feeling, that of moral obligation; that is, we feel that we ought to be thus or thus disposed, and to act in this or that manner.
4. This I suppose to be our constitution, in regard to created beings; and such do I suppose would be our feeling, irrespectively of any notion of the Deity. That is, upon the conception of these and such like relations, there would immediately arise this feeling of moral obligation, to act towards those sustaining these relations, in a particular manner.
5. But there is an Uncreated Being, to whom we stand in relations infinitely more intimate and inconceivably more solemn, than any of those of which we have spoken. It is that Infinite Being, who stands to us in the relation of Creator, Preserver, Benefactor, Lawgiver, and Judge; and to whom we stand in the relation of dependent, helpless, ignorant, and sinful creatures. How much this relation involves, we cannot possibly know; but so much as this we know, that it involves obligations greater than our intellect can estimate. We cannot contemplate it without feeling that, from the very fact of its existence, we are under obligations to entertain the disposition of filial love and obedience towards God, and to act precisely as he shall condescend to direct. And this obligation arises simply from the fact of the relation existing between the parties, and irrespectively of any other consideration; and if it be not felt, when the relations are perceived, it can never be produced by any view of the consequences which would arise to the universe from exercising it.
6. This relation, and its consequent obligation, involve, comprehend, and transcend every other. Hence it places obligation to man upon a new foundation. For if we be ourselves thus under illimitable obligations to God, and if, by virtue of the relation which he sustains to the creation, he is the Protector, Ruler, and Proprietor of all, we are under obligations to obey him in every thing. And as every other being is also his creature, we are bound to treat that creature as he its Proprietor shall direct. Hence we are bound to perform the obligation under which we stand to his creatures, not merely on account of our relations to them, but also on account of the relations in which we and they stand to God.
And hence, in general, our feeling of moral obligation is a peculiar and instinctive impulse, arising at once by the principles of our constitution, as soon as the relations are perceived in which we stand to the beings, created and uncreated, with whom we are connected.
The proof of this must rest, as I am aware, with every man's consciousness. A few illustrative remarks may, however, not be altogether useless.
I think, if we reflect upon the subject, that the manner in which we attempt to awaken moral feelings, confirms the view which I have taken. In such a case, if I mistake not, we always place before the mind the relation in which the parties stand to each other.
1. If we wish to awaken in ourselves gratitude to another, we do not reflect that this affection will produce the greatest good; but we remember the individual in the relation of benefactor; and we place this relation in the strongest possible light. If this will not produce gratitude, our effort, of necessity, fads.
2. If we desire to inflame moral indignation against crime, we show the relations in which the parties stand to each other, and expect hence to produce a conviction of the greatness of the obligation which such turpitude violates.
3. So, if we wish to overcome evil with good, we place ourselves in the relation of benefactor to the injurious person; and, in spite of himself, he is frequently compelled to yield to the law of his nature; and gratitude for favors, and sorrow for injury, spontaneously arise in his bosom.
4. And, in the plan of man's redemption, it seems to me that the Deity has acted on this principle. Irrespectively of a remedial dispensation, he is known to us only as a Creator, all wise and all powerful, perfect in holiness, justice, and truth. To our fallen nature, these attributes could minister nothing but terror. He, therefore, has revealed himself to us in the relation of a Savior and Redeemer, a God forgiving transgression and iniquity; and thus, by all the power of this new relation, he imposes upon us new obligations to gratitude, repentance, and love.
5. And hence it is, that God always asserts, that as, from the fact of this new relation, our obligations to him are in. creased; so, he who rejects the gospel is, in a special manner, a sinner, and is exposed to a more terrible condemnation. The climax of all that is awful in the doom of the unbelieving, is expressed by the terms," the wrath of the Lamb."
Again. I am not much accustomed to such refined speculations; but I think that obedience or love to God, from any more ultimate motive, than that this affection is due to him because he is God, and our God, is not piety. Thus, if a child say, I will obey my father, because it is for the happiness of the family; what the character of this action would be, I am not prepared to say; but I think the action would not be filial obedience. Filial obedience is the obeying of another, because he is my father; and it is FILIAL obedience, only in so far as it proceeds from this motive. This will be evident, if we substitute for the love of the happiness of the family, the love of money, or some other such motive, Every one sees, that it would not be filial obedience, for a child to obey his parent because he would be well paid for it.
Now, it seems to me, that the same principle applies in the other case. To feel under obligation to love God, because this affection would be productive of the greatest good, and not on account of what he is, and of the relations in which he stands to us, seems to me not to be piety; that is not to be the feeling, which a creature is bound to exercise towards his Creator. If the obligation to the love of God an really arise from any thing more ultimate than the essential relation which he sustains to us, why may not this more ultimate motive be something else, as well as the love of the greatest good? I do not say that any thing else would be as benevolent; but I speak metaphysically, and say that if real piety, or love to God, may truly spring from any thing more ultimate than God himself, I do nor see why it may not spring from one thing as well as from another; and thus, true piety might spring from various and dissimilar motives, no one of which has any real reference to God himself.
My view of this subject, in few words, is as follows:
1. We stand in relations to the several beings with which we are connected, such, that some of them, as soon as they are conceived, suggest to us the idea of moral obligation.
2. Our relations to our fellow-men suggest this conviction; in a limited and restricted sense, corresponding to the idea of general or essential equality.
3. The relation in which we stand to the Deity suggests the conviction of universal and unlimited love and obedience This binds us to proper dispositions towards Him; and, also, to such dispositions towards his creatures, as he shall appoint.
4. Hence, our duties to man are enforced by a twofold obligation; first, because of our relations to man as man and, secondly, because of our relation to man as being, with ourselves, a creature of God.
5. And hence an act, which is performed in obedience to our obligations to man, may be virtuous; but it is not pious, unless it also be performed in obedience to our obligations to God.
6. And hence we see that two things are necessary, in order to constitute any being a moral agent. They are, first, that he possess an intellectual power, by which he can understand the relation in which he stands to the beings by whom he is surrounded; secondly, that he possess a moral power, by which the feeling of obligation is suggested to him, as soon as the relation in which he stands is understood. This is sufficient to render him a moral agent. He is accountable, just in proportion to the opportunity which he has enjoyed, for acquiring a knowledge of the relations m which he stands, and of the manner in which his obligations are to be discharged.