Kames Essays On The Principles Of Morality And Natural Religion

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ESSAY II. Of the FOUNDATION and PRINCIPLES of the LAW of NATURE.

INTRODUCTION.

SUPERFICIAL knowledge produces the boldest adventurers, because it gives no check to the imagination, when fired by a new thought. Writers of this stamp lay down plans, contrive models, and are hurried on to execution, by the pleasure of novelty, without considering whether, after all, there is any solid foundation to support the spacious edifice. It redounds not a little to the honour of some late inquirers after truth, that, subduing this bent of nature, they have submitted to the slow and more painful study of facts and experiments. Na|tural philosophy, in all its branches, is ad|vanced by this laborious method. The ac|curate Mr. Locke has pursued the same track in the science of logicks, and has been followed by several ingenious writers. But Page  34 it seems to fare hard with the mistress-sci|ence, that less deference is paid to her than to her hand-maids. Every author exhibits a system of morals, such as best suits his taste and fancy. He frames regulations for human conduct, without considering whe|ther they arise out of human nature, or can be accommodated to it. And hence many airy systems that relate not more to man, than to many other beings. Authors of a warm imagination, and benevolent turn of mind, exalt man to the angelic nature, and compose laws for his conduct, so refin'd as to be far above the reach of humanity. Others of a contrary disposition, forcing down all men to a level with the very lowest of their kind, assign them laws more suitable to brutes than to rational beings. In abstract science, philosophers may more innocently indulge their fancies. The worst that can happen is, to mislead us in matters where error has little influence on practice: but they who deal in moral philosophy ought to be cauti|ous, for their errors seldom fail to have a Page  35 bad tendency. The exalting of nature a|bove its standard is apt to disgust the mind, conscious of its weakness, and of its inabili|ty to attain such an uncommon degree of perfection. The debasing of nature tends to break the balance of the affections, by add|ing weight to the selfish and irregular appe|tites. A cruel effect this, but not the only bad one. The many clashing opinions a|bout morality are apt to tempt readers, who have any hollowness of heart, to shake off all principles, and to give way to every ap|petite as it comes uppermost: and then adieu to a just tenor of life, and consistency of conduct.

THESE considerations give the author of this essay a just concern to proceed with the utmost circumspection in his inquiries, and to try his conclusions by their true touch|stone, that of facts and experiments. Had this method been strictly followed, the world would not have been perplexed with many various and inconsistent systems, which un|happily Page  36 have rendered morality a difficult and intricate science. An attempt to restore it to its original simplicity and authority, must be approved of, however short one falls in the execution. Authors differ about the origin of the laws of nature, and they differ about the laws themselves. It will perhaps be found, that there is less diffe|rence about the former in reality, than in appearance. It were to be wished, that the different opinions about the latter could be as happily reconciled. But as the author ac|knowledges this to be above his reach, he must take up with a less agreeable task, which is to attempt a plan of the laws of na|ture, drawn from their proper source, with|out regarding authority.

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CHAP. I. Of the FOUNDATION of the LAW of NATURE.

IN searching for the foundation of the laws of our nature, the following re|flections readily occur. In the first place, two things cannot be more intimately con|nected than a being and its actions; for the connection is that of cause and effect: such as the being is, such must its actions be. In the next place, the several classes into which nature has distributed living creatures, are not more distinguishable by an external form, than by an internal constitution, which ma|nifests itself in a certain uniformity of con|duct, peculiar to each species. In the third place, any action, conformable to the com|mon nature of the species, is considered by us as regular and good: it is acting accord|ing to order, and according to nature. But if there exists a being, with a constitution different from that of its kind, the actions of this being, tho' agreeable to its own pe|culiar Page  38 constitution, will, to us, appear whim|sical and disorderly: we shall have a feeling of disgust, as if we saw a man with two heads or four hands. These reflections lead us to the foundation of the laws of our nature. They are to be derived from the common nature of man, of which every person par|takes who is not a monster.

BUT as the above conclusion is the ground|work of all morality, it may not be improper to bestow a few more words upon it. Look|ing around, we find creatures of very diffe|rent kinds, both as to their external and in|ternal constitutions. Each species having a peculiar nature, must have a peculiar rule of action resulting from its nature. We find this to hold in fact; and it is extreme agree|able to observe how accurately the laws of each species, arising from its nature, are ad|justed to its external frame, and to the cir|cumstances in which it is placed, so as to procure the conveniencies of life in the best manner, and to produce regularity and con|sistency Page  39 of conduct. To give but one in|stance. The laws, which govern sociable creatures, differ widely from those which govern the savage and solitary. Nothing more natural nor more orderly among soli|tary creatures, who have no mutual connec|tion, than to make food one of another. But for creatures in society to live after this manner, behoved to be the effect of jarring and inconsistent principles. No such disor|derly appearance is to be met with upon the face of this globe. There is, as above ob|served, a harmony betwixt the internal and external constitution of the several classes of animals; and this harmony obtains so uni|versally, as to afford a delightful prospect of deep design regularly carried into execution. The common nature of every class of be|ings is felt by us as perfect; and, therefore, if, in any instance, a particular being swerve from the common nature of its kind, the action upon that account is accompanied with a sense of disorder and wrong. Thus, as we have a sense of right from every ac|tion, Page  40 which is conformable to this common nature, the laws, which ought to govern every animal, are to be derived from no other source than the common nature of the species. In a word, it is according to order, that the different sorts of living crea|tures should be governed by laws adapted to their peculiar nature. We consider it as fit and proper that it should be so; and it is a beautiful scene to find creatures acting ac|cording to their nature, and thereby act|ing uniformly, and according to a just te|nor of life.

THE force of this reasoning cannot, at any rate, be resisted by those who admit of final causes. We make no difficulty to pro|nounce, that a species of beings are made for such and such an end, who are of such and such a nature. A lion is made to pur|chase the means of life by his claws. Why? because such is his nature and constitution. A man is made to purchase the means of life by the help of others, in society. Why? Page  41 because, from the constitution both of his body and mind, he cannot live comfortably but in society. It is thus we discover for what end we were designed by nature, or the author of nature; and the same chain of reasoning points out to us the laws by which we ought to regulate our actions. For, acting according to nature, is acting so, as to answer the end of our creation.

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CHAP. II. Of the MORAL SENSE.

HAVING shown that the nature of man is the only foundation of the laws that ought to govern his actions, it will be necessary to trace out human nature with all the accuracy possible, so far as regards the present subject. If we can happily ac|complish this undertaking, it will be easy, in the synthetical method, to deduce the laws which ought to regulate our conduct. And we shall examine, in the first place, after what manner we are related to beings and things about us; for this speculation will lead to the point in view.

As we are placed in a great world, sur|rounded with beings and things, some bene|ficial, others hurtful; we are so constituted, that scarce any of the objects of perception are indifferent to us. They either give us pleasure or pain. Sounds, tastes, and smells, are either agreeable or disagreeable. And Page  43 the thing is most of all remarkable is the ob|jects of sight, which affect us in a more live|ly manner than the objects of any other ex|ternal sense. Thus, a spreading oak, a ver|dant plain, a large river, are objects which afford great delight. A rotten carcase, a dis|torted figure, create aversion, which, in some instances, goes the length of horror.

WITH regard to objects of sight, what|ever gives pleasure, is said to be Beautiful; whatever gives pain, is said to be Ugly. The terms Beauty and Ugliness, in their original signification, are confined to objects of sight: and indeed such objects, being more highly agreeable or disagreeable than o|thers, deserve well to be distinguished by a proper name. But tho' this is the proper meaning of the terms Beauty and Ugliness, yet, as it happens with words which convey a more lively idea than ordinary, the terms are applied in a figurative sense to almost every thing which carries a high relish or disgust, tho' not the object of sight, where Page  44 these feelings have not a proper name of their own. Thus, we talk of a beautiful theorem, a beautiful thought, and a beauti|ful action. And this way of speaking has, by common use, become so familiar, that it is scarce reckoned a figurative expression.

THE pleasure and pain which arise from objects considered simply as existing, with|out relation to any end proposed, or any de|signing agent, are to be placed in the lowest rank or order of Beauty and Ugliness. But when external objects, such as works of art, are considered with relation to some end proposed, we feel a higher degree of plea|sure or pain. Thus, a building regular in all its parts, pleases the eye, upon the very first view. But considered as a house for dwell|ing in, which is the end proposed, it plea|ses still more, supposing it to be well fit|ted to its end. A similar sensation arises in observing the operations of a well order|ed state, where the parts are nicely adjust|ed to the ends of security and happiness.

Page  45 THIS perception of Beauty in works of art or design, which is produced not barely by a sight of the object, but by viewing the object in a certain light, as fitted to some use, and as related to some end, includes in it what is termed Approbation: for approbati|on, when applied to works of art, means, precisely, our being pleased with them, or conceiving them beautiful in the view of being fitted to their end. Approbation and Disapprobation do not apply to the first or lowest class of beautiful and ugly objects. To say that we approve of a sweet taste, or of a flowing river, is really saying no more, than barely that we are pleased with such objects. But the term is justly applied to works of art, because it means more than being pleased with such an object merely as existing. It imports a peculiar beauty, which is perceived upon considering the object as fitted to the use intended.

IT must be further observed, to avoid ob|scurity, that the beauty, which arises from the Page  46 relation of an object to its end, is indepen|dent of the end itself, whether good or bad, whether beneficial or hurtful: for the feel|ing arises merely from considering its fitness to the end proposed, whatever that end be.

WHEN we take the end itself under con|sideration, there is discovered a distinct mo|dification of Beauty and Ugliness, of a high|er kind than the two former. A beneficial end proposed, strikes us with a very peculi|ar pleasure; and approbation belongs also to this feeling. Thus, the mechanism of a ship is beautiful, in the view of means well fitted to an end. But the end itself of car|rying on commerce, and procuring so many conveniencies to mankind, exalts the object, and heightens our approbation and pleasure. By an End, I mean, that to which any thing is fitted, which it serves to procure and bring about, whether it be an ultimate end, or sub|ordinate to something further. Hence, what is considered as an end in one view, may be considered as a means in another. But Page  47 so far as it is considered as an end, the de|gree of its Beauty depends upon the degree of its usefulness. The feeling of Approba|tion here terminates upon the thing itself in many instances, abstracted from the intention of an agent; which intention, coming into view as good or bad, gives rise to a modifica|tion of Beauty or Deformity, different from those above set forth, as shall be presently explained. Let it be only kept in view, that, as the end or use of a thing is an object of greater dignity and importance than the means, the approbation bestowed on the former rises higher than that bestowed on the latter.

THESE three orders of Beauty may be blended together in many different ways, to have very different effects. If an object, in itself beautiful, be ill fitted to its end, it will, upon the whole, be disagreeable. This may be exemplified, in a house regular in its architecture, and beautiful to the eye, but incommodious for dwelling. If there Page  48 is in an object an aptitude to a bad end, it will, upon the whole, be disagreeable, tho' it have the second modification of beau|ty in the greatest perfection. A constituti|on of government, formed with the most perfect art for enslaving the people, may be an instance of this. If the end proposed is good, but the object not well fitted to the end, it will be beautiful or ugly, as the goodness of the end, or unfitness of the means, are prevalent. Of this, instances will occur at first view, without being sug|gested.

THE above modifications of beauty and deformity, apply to all objects animate and inanimate. A voluntary agent is an object which produces a peculiar modification of beauty and deformity, which may readily be distinguished in the feeling from all o|thers. The actions of living creatures are more interesting than the actions of matter. The instincts, and principles of action of the former, give us more delight than the blind Page  49 powers of the latter, or, in other words, are more beautiful. No one can doubt of this fact, who is in any degree conversant with the poets. In Homer every thing lives. Even darts and arrows are endued with vo|luntary motion. And we are sensible, that nothing animates a poem more than the frequent use of this figure.

AND hence a new modification of the beauty and deformity of actions, consider|ed as proceeding from intention, deliberati|on and choice. This modification, which is of the utmost importance in the science of morals, concerns principally human actions; for we discover little of intention, delibera|tion and choice in the actions of inferior creatures. Human actions are not only a|greeable or disagreeable, beautiful or deform|ed, in the different views above mentioned, but are further distinguished in our feeling, as fit, right and meet to be done, or as un|fit, unmeet and wrong to be done. These are simple feelings, capable of no definition, and Page  50 which cannot otherways be explained, than by making use of the words that are appro|priated to them. But let any man atten|tively examine what passes in his mind, when the object of his thought is an action proceeding from deliberate intention, and he will soon discover the meaning of these words, and the feelings which they denote. Let him but attend to a deliberate action suggested by filial piety, or one suggested by gratitude; such actions will not only be agree|able to him, and appear beautiful, but will be agreeable and beautiful as fit, right and meet to be done. He will approve of the action in that quality, and he will approve of the actor for having done his duty. This pecu|liar feeling, or modification of beauty and deformity in human actions, is known by the name of moral beauty, and moral de|formity. In it consists the morality and immorality of human actions; and the pow+er or faculty, by which we perceive this dif|ference among actions, passes under the name of the moral sense.

Page  51 IT is but a superficial account which is given of morality by most writers, that it depends upon Approbation and Disappro|bation. For it is evident, that these terms are applicable to works of art, and to ob|jects beneficial and hurtful, as well as to morality. It ought further to have been ob|served, that the approbation or disapproba|tion of actions, are feelings, very distinguish|able from what relate to the objects now mentioned. Some actions are approved of as good and as fit, right and meet to be done; others are disapproved of as bad and unfit, unmeet and wrong to be done. In the one case, we approve of the actor as a good man; in the other, disapprove of him as a bad man. These feelings don't apply to ob|jects as fitted to an end, nor even to the end itself, except as proceeding from delibe|rate intention. When a piece of work is well executed, we approve of the artificer for his skill, not for his goodness. Several things inanimate, as well as animate, serve to extreme good ends. We approve of these ends as useful in themselves, but not as mo|rally Page  52 fit and right, where they are not con|sidered as the result of intention.

OF all objects whatever, human actions are the most highly delightful or disgustful, and afford the greatest degree of beauty or deformity. In these every modification con|curs: the fitness or unfitness of the means: the goodness or badness of the end: the intention of the actor, which gives them the peculiar character of fit, right and meet, or unfit, wrong and unmeet.

THUS we find the nature of man so con|stituted, as to approve of certain actions, and to disapprove of others; to consider some actions as fit, right and meet to be done, and to consider others as unfit, unmeet and wrong. What distinguishes actions, to make them objects of the one or other feel|ing, will be explained in the following cha|pter. And perhaps it will further appear, with regard to some of our actions, that the approbation, or disapprobation bestow|ed, has a more peculiar modification than has been hitherto observed, to be a founda|tion Page  53 for the well known terms of duty and obligation, and consequently for a rule of conduct, which, in the strictest sense, may be termed a law. But, at present, it is suffici|ent to have explained in general, that we are so constituted as to perceive or feel a Beau|ty and Deformity, and a Right and Wrong in actions. And this is what strongly cha|racterises the laws which govern the actions of mankind. With regard to all other beings, we have no Data to discover the laws of their nature, other than their frame and constitu|tion. We have the same Data to discover the laws of our own nature. And, we have, over and above, a peculiar feeling of approba|tion, or disapprobation, to point out to us what we ought to do, and what we ought not to do. And one thing is extremely remark|able, which will be explained afterwards, that the laws which are fitted to the nature of man, and to his external circumstances, are the same which we approve of by the moral sense.

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CHAP. III. Of DUTY and OBLIGATION.

THO' these terms are of the utmost im|portance in morals, I know not that any author has attempted to explain them, by pointing out those principles or feelings which they express. This defect I shall en|deavour to supply, by tracing these terms to their proper source, without which the sys|tem of morals cannot be complete, because they point out to us the most precise and es|sential branch of morality.

LORD Shaftesbury, to whom the world is much indebted for his inestimable writ|ings, has clearly and convincingly made out,

that virtue is the good, and vice the ill of every one.

But he has not proved vir|tue to be our duty, otherways than by show|ing it to be our interest, which does not come up to the idea of duty. For this term plain|ly implies somewhat indispensible in our con|duct; Page  55 what we ought to do, what we ought to submit to. Now a man may be consider|ed as foolish, for acting against his interest, but he cannot be considered as wicked or vi|tious. His lordship, indeed, in his essay up|on virtue *, points at an explanation of Du|ty and Obligation, by asserting the subordi|nacy of the self-affections to the social. But tho' he states this as a proposition to be made out, he drops it in the after part of his work, and never again brings it into view.

Mr. Hutchison, in his essay upon beauty and virtue †, founds the morality of acti|ons on a certain quality of actions, which procures approbation and love to the agent. But this account of morality is imperfect, because it excludes justice, and every thing which may be strictly called Duty. The man who, confining himself to strict duty, is true to his word, and avoids harming o|thers, is a just and moral man; is intitled to Page  56 some share of esteem, but will never be the object of love or friendship. He must show a disposition to the good of mankind, at least of his friends and neighbours: he must exert acts of humanity and benevo|lence, before he can hope to procure the affection of others.

BUT it is principally to be observed, that, in this account of morality, the terms right, obligation, duty, ought and should, have no distinct meaning; which shows that the entire foundation of morality is not taken in by this author. It is true, that, towards the close of his work, he endeavours to ex|plain the meaning of the term obligation. But as criticising upon authors, those especi|ally who have laid themselves out to ad|vance the cause of virtue, is not the most agreeable task; I would not chuse to spend time, in showing that he is unsuccessful in his attempt. The slightest attention to the subject will make it evident. For his whole account of Obligation is no more than,

ei|ther Page  57 a motive from self-interest, sufficient to determine all those who duly consider it to a certain course of action,

which surely is not moral obligation;

a determination, without regard to our own interest, to approve actions, and to perform them; which determination shall also make us displeased with ourselves, and uneasy upon having acted contrary to it;

in which sense, he says, there is naturally an obligati|on upon all men to benevolence. But this account falls far short of the whole idea of obligation, and leaves no distinction betwixt it and a simple approbation or disapprobati|on of the moral sense; feelings that attend many actions, which by no means come under the notion of obligation or duty.

NEITHER is the author of the treatise upon human nature more successful, when he endeavours to resolve the moral sense in|to pure sympathy †. According to this author, there is no more in morality but ap|proving Page  58 or disapproving of an action, after we discover by reflection that it tends to the good or hurt of society. This would be by far too faint a principle to controul our irregular appetites and passions. It would scarce be sufficient to restrain us from en|croaching upon our friends and neighbours; and, with regard to strangers, would be the weakest of all restraints. We shall, by and by, show that morality has a more solid foun|dation. In the mean time, it is of impor|tance to observe, that upon this author's system, as well as Hutchison's, the noted terms of duty, obligation, ought and should &c. are perfectly unintelligible.

WE shall now proceed to explain these terms, by pointing out the precise feelings which they express. And, in performing this task, there will be discovered a wonderful and beautiful contrivance of the Author of our nature, to give authority to morality, by putting the self-affections in a due subordina|tion to the social. The moral sense has, in Page  59 part, been explained above; that, by it, we perceive some actions under the modifi|cation of being fit, right, and meet to be done, and others under the modification of being unfit, unmeet and wrong. When this observation is applied to particulars, it is an evident fact, that we have a sense of fit|ness in kindly and beneficent actions. We approve of ourselves and others for perform|ing actions of this kind. As, on the other hand, we disapprove of the unsociable, peev|ish and hard-hearted. But, with regard to one set of actions, there is a further modifi|cation of the moral sense. Actions directed against others, by which they are hurt or prejudged in their persons, in their fame, or in their goods, are the objects of a peculiar feeling. They are perceived and felt not only as unfit to be done, but as absolutely wrong to be done, and what, at any rate, we ought not to do. What is here asserted, is a matter of fact, which can admit of no o|ther proof than an appeal to every man's own feelings. Lay prejudice aside, and give fair play to the emotions of the heart. I ask Page  60 no other concession. There is no man, how|ever irregular in his life and manners, how|ever poisoned by a wrong education, but must be sensible of this fact. And indeed the words which are to be found in all lan|guages, and which are perfectly understood in the communication of sentiments, are an evident demonstration of it. Duty, obli|gation, ought and should, in their common meaning, would be empty sounds, unless upon supposition of such a feeling.

THE case is the same with regard to grati|tude to benefactors, and performing of en|gagements. We feel these as our duty in the strictest sense, and as what we are indis|pensibly obliged to. We don't consider them as in any measure under our own power. We have the feeling of necessity, and of be|ing bound and tied to performance, almost equally as if we were under some external compulsion.

IT is fit here to be remarked, that bene|volent and generous actions are not the ob|ject Page  61 of this peculiar feeling. Hence, such actions, tho' considered as fit and right to be done, are not however considered to be our duty, but as virtuous actions beyond what is strictly our duty. Benevolence and gene|rosity are more beautiful, and more attrac|tive of love and esteem, than justice. Yet, not being so necessary to the support of so|ciety, they are left upon the general footing of approbatory pleasure; while justice, faith, truth, without which society could not at all subsist, are the objects of the above pecu|liar feeling, to take away all shadow of li|berty, and to put us under a necessity of per|formance.

DOCTOR Butler, a manly and acute writer, has gone further than any other, to assign a just foundation for moral Duty. He considers * conscience or reflection,

as one principle of action, which, compared with the rest as they stand together in the na|ture of man, plainly bears upon it marks Page  62 of authority over all the rest, and claims the absolute direction of them all, to al|low or forbid their gratification.

And his proof of this proposition is,

that a dis|approbation of reflection is in itself a prin|ciple manifestly superior to a mere pro|pension.

Had this admirable author handled the subject more professedly than he had occasion to do in a preface, 'tis more than likely he would have brought it out in|to its clearest light. But he has not said enough to afford that light which the sub|ject is capable of. For it may be observ|ed, in the first place, that a disapprobation of reflection is far from being the whole of the matter. Such disapprobation is ap|plied to moroseness, selfishness, and many other partial affections, which are, however, not considered in a strict sense as contrary to our duty. And it may be doubted, whe|ther a disapprobation of reflection is, in eve|ry case, a principle superior to a mere pro|pension. We disapprove of a man who ne|glects his private affairs, and gives himself Page  63 up to love, hunting, or any other amuse|ment: nay, he disapproves of himself. Yet from this we cannot fairly conclude, that he is guilty of any breach of duty, or that it is unlawful for him to follow his propension. We may observe, in the next place, what will be afterwards explained, that conscience, or the moral sense is none of our principles of action, but their guide and director. It is still of greater importance to observe, that the authority of conscience does not merely con|sist in an act of reflection. It proceeds from a direct feeling, which we have upon present|ing the object, without the intervention of any sort of reflection. And the authority lyes in this circumstance, that we feel and perceive the action to be our duty, and what we are indispensibly bound to perform. It is in this manner, that the moral sense, with regard to some actions, plainly bears upon it the marks of authority over all our appetites and affections. It is the voice of God with|in us which commands our strictest obedi|ence, Page  64 just as much as when his will is de|clared by express revelation.

WHAT is above laid down is an analysis of the moral sense, but not the whole of it. A very important branch still remains to be unfolded. And, indeed, the more we search into the works of nature, the more oppor|tunity there is to admire the wisdom and goodness of the Sovereign Architect. In the matters above mentioned, performing of pro|mises, gratitude, and abstaining from harm|ing others, we have not only the peculiar feeling and sense of duty and obligation: in transgressing these duties we have not only the feeling of vice and wickedness, but we have further the sense of merited punishment, and dread of its being inflicted upon us. This dread may be but slight in the more venial transgressions. But, in crimes of a deep dye, it rises to a degree of anguish and despair. Hence that remorse of conscience, which histories are full of, upon the com|mission of certain crimes, and which proves Page  65 the most severe of all tortures. This dread of merited punishment operates for the most part so strongly upon the imagination, that every unusual accident, every extraordinary misfortune is considered as a punishment purposely inflicted for the crime commit|ted. While the guilty person is in prospe|rity, he makes a shift to blunt the stings of his conscience. But no sooner does he fall into distress, or into any depression of mind, than his conscience lays fast hold of him; his crime stares him in the face; and every accidental misfortune is converted in|to a real punishment.

And they said one to another, we are verily guilty concern|ing our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul when he besought us, and we would not hear: therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, do not sin against the child? and you would not hear. Therefore behold also his blood is required †.

Page  66 ONE material circumstance is here to be remarked, which makes a further difference betwixt the primary and secondary virtues. As justice, and the other primary virtues, are more essential to society than generosity, be|nevolence, or any other secondary virtue, they are likeways more universal. Friendship, ge|nerosity, softness of manners, form particular characters, and serve to distinguish one man from another. But the sense of justice, and of the other primary virtues, is universal. It belongs to man as such. Tho' it exists in very different degrees of strength, there per|haps never was a human creature absolutely void of it. And it makes a delightful ap|pearance in the human constitution, that e|ven where this sense is weak, as it is in some individuals, it notwithstanding retains its au|thority as the director of their conduct. If there is any sense of justice, or of abstaining from injury, it must distinguish Right from Wrong, what we ought to do from what we ought not to do; and, by that very dis|tinguishing feeling, justly claims to be our Page  67 guide and governor. This consideration may serve to justify human laws, which make no distinction among men, as endued with a stronger or weaker sense of morality.

AND here we must pause a moment, to indulge some degree of admiration upon this part of the human system. Man is evident|ly intended to live in society; and because there can be no society among creatures who prey upon one another, it was necessary, in the first place, to provide against mutual in|juries. Further; man is the weakest of all creatures separately, and the very strongest in society. Therefore mutual assistance is the principal end of society. And to this end it was necessary, that there should be mutu|al trust and reliance upon engagements, and that favours received should be thankfully repaid. Now nothing can be more finely adjusted than the human heart to answer these purposes. 'Tis not sufficient, that we approve of every action which is essential to the preservation of society. 'Tis not suffici|ent, Page  68 that we disapprove of every action which tends to its dissolution. A simple sense of approbation or disapprobation will scarce be sufficient to give these actions the sanction of a law. But the approbation in this case has the peculiar feeling of duty, that these actions are what we ought to perform, and what we are indispensibly bound to perform. This circumstance converts into a law what without it can only be considered as a rati|onal measure, and a prudential rule of acti|on. Nor is any thing omitted to give it the most complete character of a law. The transgression is attended with apprehension of punishment, nay with actual punishment; as every misfortune which befalls the trans|gressor is considered by him as a punish|ment. Nor is this the whole of the mat|ter. Sympathy with our fellow-creatures is a principle implanted in the breast of every man: we cannot hurt another without suf|fering for it, which is an additional punish|ment. And we are still further punished for our injustice, or ingratitude, by incurring thereby the aversion and hatred of mankind.

Page  69

CHAP. IV. Of the DIFFERENT ORDERS of MORAL BEAUTY.

IT is a fact which will be universally ad|mitted, that no man thinks so highly of himself, or of another, for having done a just, as for having done a generous action: yet every one must be sensible, that justice is more essential than generosity to the order and preservation of society; and why we should place the greater merit upon the less essential action may appear unaccountable. This mat|ter deserves to be examined, because it gives a further opening to the science of morals.

UPON a small degree of reflection, it will appear, that the whole system of morals is founded upon the supposition of liberty of action *. If actions were understood to be Page  70 necessary, and no way under our power or controul, we could never conceive them as fit or unfit to be done; as what we are indis|pensibly bound to do or not to do. To have such a feeling of human actions, upon the supposition of necessity, would be as incon|sistent as to have such a feeling of the acti|ons of matter. The celebrated dispute about liberty and necessity is reserved to be discuss|ed in a following essay. But without enter|ing upon that subject at present, one fact is certain, that in acting we have a feeling of liberty and independency. We never do a wrong, however strong the motive be, which is not attended with a severe reflecti|on, that we might have done otherways, and ought to have done otherways. Nay, du|ring the very action, in the very time of it, we have a sense or feeling of wrong, and that we ought to forbear. So that the moral sense, both in the direct feeling, and in the act of reflection, plainly supposes and im|plies liberty of action.

Page  71 THIS, if we mistake not, will clear the difficulty above stated. If in the moral sense be involved liberty of action, there must of consequence be the highest sense or feeling of morality where liberty is greatest. Now, in judging of human actions, those actions, which are essential to the order and preser|vation of society, are considered to be in a good measure necessary. It is our strict duty to be just and honest. We are bound by a law in our nature, which we ought not to transgress. No such feeling of duty or obligation attends those actions which come under the denomination of generosity, great|ness of mind, heroism. Justice, therefore, is considered as less free than generosity; and, upon that very account, we ascribe less me|rit to the former, than to the latter. We a|scribe no merit at all to an action which is altogether involuntary; and we ascribe more or less merit, in proportion as the action is more or less voluntary.

Page  72 THUS there is discovered two ranks or classes of moral actions, which are different in their nature, and different as to the laws by which they are enforced. Those of the first rank, being essential to the subsistence of society, are entirely withdrawn from our e|lection and choice. They are perceived as indispensibly obligatory upon us; and the transgression of the laws, which regulate this branch of our conduct, is attended with se|vere and never-failing punishment. In a word, there is not a characteristic of posi|tive law which is not applicable, in the strict|est sense, to these laws of nature; with this material difference, that the sanctions of these laws are greatly more efficacious than any have been that invented to enforce munici|pal laws. Those of the second rank, which contribute to the improvement of society, but are not strictly necessary to its subsist|ence, are left to our own choice. They have not the character of moral necessity im|pressed upon them, nor is the forbearance of them attended with the feeling of guilt. On Page  73 the other hand, the actions which belong to this rank are the objects of the strongest feelings of moral beauty; of the highest de|gree of approbation, both from ourselves and others. Offices of undeserved kindness, re|quital of good for evil, generous toils and sufferings for the good of our country, come under this class. These are not made our duty. There is no motive to the perform|ance, which, in any proper sense, can be called a law. But there are the strongest motives that can consist with perfect free|dom. The performance is rewarded with a consciousness of self-merit, and with the praise and admiration of all the world, which are the highest and most refined pleasures that human nature is susceptible of.

THERE is so much of enthusiasm in this branch of moral beauty, that it is not wonderful to find persons of a free and generous turn of mind captivated with it, who are less attentive to the virtues of the Page  74 first class. The magnanimous, who can|not bear restraint, are more guided by gene|rosity than justice. Yet, as pain is a strong|er motive to action than pleasure, the remorse which attends a breach of strict duty is, with the bulk of mankind, a more powerful in|citement to honesty, than praise and self-ap|probation are to generosity. And there can|not be a more pregnant instance of wisdom than this part of the human constitution; it being far more essential to society, that all men be just and honest, than that they be patriots and heroes.

THE sum of what is above laid down is, that, with regard to actions of the first rank, the pain of transgressing the law is much greater than the pleasure which results from obeying it. The contrary is the case of actions of the second rank. The pleasure arising from the performance is much great|er than the pain of neglect. Among the vices opposite to the primary virtues, the Page  75 most striking appearances of moral defor|mity are found. Among the secondary vir|tues, the most striking appearances of moral beauty.

Page  76

CHAP. V. Of the PRINCIPLES of ACTION.

IN the three foregoing chapters we have taken some pains to inquire into the moral sense, and to annalise it into its diffe|rent feelings. Our present task must be to inquire into those principles in our nature which move us to action. These are diffe|rent subjects. For the moral sense, proper|ly speaking, is not a principle which moves us to action. Its province is to instruct us, which of our principles of action we may indulge, and which of them we must re|strain. It is the voice of God within us, informing us of our duty.

IN a treatise upon the law of nature it is of great importance to trace out the prin|ciples by which we are led to action. We have above observed, that the laws of nature can be no other than rules of action adapted to our nature. Now our nature, so far as Page  77 concerns action, is made up of appetites, passions and affections, which are the prin|ciples of action, and of the moral sense, by which these principles are governed and di|rected. No action therefore is a duty, to the performance of which we are not prompted by some natural principle. To make such an action our duty, would be to lay down a rule of conduct contrary to our nature, or that has no foundation in our nature. Con|science, or the moral sense, may restrain us from actions to which we are incited by a natural principle: but conscience, or the mo|ral sense, is not, in any case, the sole prin|ciple or motive of action. Nature has as|signed it a different province. This is a truth which has been little attended to by those who have given us systems of natural laws. No wonder, therefore, they have wandered so far from truth. Let it be kept close in view, and it will put an end to many a con|troversy about these laws. For example, if it be laid down as a primary law of nature, that we are strictly bound to advance the Page  78 good of all, regarding our own interest no further than as it makes a part of the gene|ral happiness, we may safely reject such a law as inconsistent with our nature, unless it be made appear, that there is a principle of benevolence in man which prompts him to an equal pursuit of the happiness of all. To found this disinterested scheme wholly upon the moral sense, would be a fruitless endeavour. The moral sense, as above observ|ed, is our guide only, not our mover. Ap|probation or disapprobation of these actions, to which, by some natural principle, we are antecedently directed, is all that can result from it. If it be laid down, on the other hand, that we ought only to regard ourselves in all our actions, and that it is folly, if not vice, to concern ourselves for others, such a law can never be admitted, unless upon the supposition that self-love is our only prin|ciple of action.

IT is probable, that, in the following parti|cular, man differs from the brute creation. Page  79 Brutes are entirely governed by principles of action, which, in them, obtain the name of Instincts. They blindly follow their in|stincts, and are led by that instinct which is strongest for the time. It is meet and fit they should act after this manner, because it is acting according to the whole of their nature. But for man to allow himself to be led implicitly by instinct, or his principles of action, without check or controul, is not acting according to the whole of his nature. He is endued with a moral sense or consci|ence, to check and controul his principles of action, and to instruct him which of them he may indulge, and which of them he ought to restrain. This account of the brute creation is undoubtedly true in the main: whether so in every particular is of no importance to the present subject, being on|ly suggested by way of contrast, to illustrate the peculiar nature of man.

AFULL account of our principles of action would be an endless theme. But as it is pro|posed Page  80 to confine the present short essay to the laws which govern social life, we shall have no occasion to inquire into any prin|ciples of action, but what are directed upon others; dropping these which have self a|lone for their object. And, in this inquiry, we set out with a most important question, seiz. In what sense we are to hold a princi|ple of universal benevolence, as belonging to human nature? When we consider a single man, abstracted from all circumstances and all connections, we are not conscious of any benevolence to him: we feel nothing with|in us that prompts us to advance his happi|ness. If one is agreeable at first sight, and attracts any degree of affection, it is owing to looks, manner or behaviour. And for e|vidence of this, we are as apt to be disgusted at first sight, as to be pleased. Man is by nature a shy and timorous animal. Every new object gives an impression of fear, till, upon better acquaintance, it is discovered to be harmless. Thus an infant clings to its nurse upon the sight of a new face; and Page  81 this natural dread is not removed but by long experience. If every human creature did produce affection in every other at first sight, children, by natural instinct, would be fond of strangers. But no such instinct discovers itself. Fondness is confined to the nurse, the parents, and those who are most about the child; 'till, by degrees, it o|pens to a sense of larger connections. This argument may be illustrated by a very low, but very apt instance. Dogs have, by nature, an affection for the human species; and, upon this account, puppies run to the first man they see, show marks of fond|ness, and play about his feet. There is no such general fondness of man to man by nature. Particular circumstances are al|ways required to produce and call it forth. Distress indeed never fails to beget sym|pathy. The misery of the most unknown is a painful object, and we are prompted by nature to afford relief. But when there is nothing to call forth our sympathy; where there are no peculiar circumstances to inte|rest Page  82 us, or beget a connection, we rest in a state of indifference, and are not conscious of wishing either good or ill to the person. Those moralists, therefore, who require us to lay aside all partial affection, and to act upon a principle of general equal benevo|lence to all men, require us to act upon a principle which in truth has no place in our nature.

NOTWITHSTANDING of this it may be justly said, that man is endued with a prin|ciple of universal benevolence. For the hap|piness of mankind is an object agreeable to the mind in contemplation; and good men have a sensible pleasure in every study or pursuit by which they can promote it. It must in|deed be acknowledged, that benevolence is not equally directed to all men, but gradual|ly decreases, according to the distance of the object, 'till it dwindle away to nothing. But here comes in a happy contrivance of nature, to supply the want of benevolence to|wards distant objects; which is, to give pow|er Page  83 to an abstract term, such as our religion, our country, our government, or even man|kind, to raise benevolence or publick spirit in the mind. The particular objects under each of these classes, considered singly and apart, may have little or no force to pro|duce affection; but when comprehended un|der one general term, they become an ob|ject that dilates and warms the heart: and, in this way, man is enabled to embrace in his affection all mankind, and thereby prom|pted to publick spirited actions.

HE must have a great share of indifference in his temper who can reflect upon this branch of human nature without some de|gree of emotion. There is perhaps not one scene to be met with in the natural or mo|ral world, where more of design and of con|summate wisdom are displayed, than in this under consideration. The authors, who, im|pressed with reverence for human nature, have endeavoured to exalt it to the highest pitch, could none of them stretch their ima|gination beyond a principle of equal and u|niversal Page  84 benevolence. And a very fine scheme it is in idea. But unluckily it is entirely of the Utopian kind, altogether unfit for life and action. It has escaped the considerati|on of these authors, that man is by nature of a limited capacity, and that his affection, by multiplication of objects, instead of be|ing increased, is split into parts, and weaken|ed by division. A principle of universal e|qual benevolence, by dividing the attention and affection, instead of promoting benevo|lent actions, would in reality be an obstruc|tion to them. The mind would be distract|ed by the multiplicity of objects that have an equal influence, so as to be eternally at a loss where to set out. But the human system is better adjusted, than to admit of such dis|proportion betwixt ability and affection. The principal objects of man's love are his friends and relations. He has to spare for his neighbours. His affection lessens gradually in proportion to the distance of the object, 'till it vanish altogether. But were this the whole of human nature, with regard to be|nevolence, Page  85 man would be but an abject crea|ture. By a very happy contrivance, objects which, because of their distance, have little or no influence, are made by accumulation, and by being gathered together, in one ge|neral view, to have the very strongest effect; exceeding in many instances the most lively affection that is bestowed upon particular objects. By this happy contrivance the at|tention of the mind, and its affections, are preserved entire, to be bestowed upon gene|ral objects, instead of being dissipated by an endless division. Nothing more ennobles human nature than this principle or spring of action; and, at the same time, nothing is more wonderful, than that a general term, to which a very faint, if any, idea is affixt, should be the foundation of a more intense affection than is bestowed, for the most part, upon particular objects, how attractive soever. When we talk of our country, our religion, our government, the ideas annexed to these general terms are at best obscure and indi|stinct. General terms are extremely useful Page  86 in language, serving, like mathematical signs, to communicate our thoughts in a summary way. But the use of them is not confined to language. They serve for a much nobler purpose, to excite us to generous and bene|volent actions, of the most exalted kind; not confined to particulars, but grasping whole societies, towns, countries, kingdoms, nay, all mankind. By this curious mecha|nism, the defect of our nature is amply re|medied. Distant objects, otherways insen|sible, are rendered conspicuous. Accumula|tion makes them great, and greatness brings them near the eye. The affection is preserv|ed, to be bestowed entire, as upon a single object. And to say all in one word, this sy|stem of benevolence, which is really found|ed in human nature, and not the invention of man, is infinitely better contrived to advance the good and happiness of man|kind, than any Utopian system that ever has been produced, by the warmest imagination.

Page  87 UPON the opposite system of absolute sel|fishness, there is no occasion to lose a mo|ment. It is evidently chimerical, because it has no foundation in human nature. It is not more certain, that there exists the crea|ture man, than that he has principles of ac|tion directed entirely upon others; some to do them good, and others to do them mis|chief. Who can doubt of this, when friend|ship, compassion, gratitude on the one hand; and, on the other, malice and resentment are considered. It has indeed been observed, that we indulge such passions and affections merely for our own gratification. But no per|son can relish this observation, who is in any measure acquainted with human nature. The social affections are in fact the source of the deepest afflictions, as well as of the most ex|alted pleasures, as has been fully laid open in the foregoing essay. In a word, we are evidently formed by nature for society, and for indulging the social, as well as the selfish passions; and therefore, to contend, that we ought only to regard ourselves, and to be Page  88 influenced by no principles but what are sel|fish, is directly to fly in the face of nature, and to lay down a rule of conduct incon|sistent with our nature.

THESE systems being laid aside, as widely erring from the nature of man, the way lyes open to come at what are his true and genu|ine principles of action. The first thing that nature consults, is the preservation of her creatures. Hence the love of life is made the strongest of all instincts. Upon the same foun|dation, pain is in a greater degree the object of aversion, than pleasure is of desire. Pain warns us of what tends to our dissolution, and so is a strong guard to self-preservation: Pleasure is often sought after unwarily, and by means dangerous to health and life. Pain comes in as a monitor of our danger; and nature, consulting our preservation in the first place, and our gratification only in the se|cond, wisely gives pain more force to draw us back, than it gives pleasure to push us forward.

Page  89 THE second principle of action is self-love, or desire of our own happiness and good. This is a stronger principle than bene|volence, or love bestowed upon others; and in that respect is wisely ordered, because every man has more power, knowledge, and opportunity to promote his own good, than that of others. Thus the good of in|dividuals is principally trusted to their own care. It is agreeable to the limited nature of such a creature as man, that it should be so, and consequently it is wisely ordered that every man should have the strongest affecti|on for himself.

THE above principles have Self for their object. The following regard others. Fi|delity is undoubtedly a principle of action not of the weakest sort. Performance of pro|mises, the standing true to engagements, and in general the executing of trusts, come under this head. Therefore friendship belongs to this principle, which supposes a mutual en|gagement; and also love to children, who by nature are entrusted to our care.

Page  90 GRATITUDE is a fourth principle of ac|tion, universally acknowledged; and Benevo|lence possesses the last place, diversified by its objects, and exerting itself more vigorously, or more faintly, in proportion to the distance of particular objects, and the grandeur of those that are general. This principle of ac|tion has one remarkable modification, that it operates with much greater force to relieve those in distress, than to promote positive good. In the case of distress, sympathy comes to its aid, and, in that circumstance, it acquires the name of compassion.

THESE several principles of action are or|dered, with admirable wisdom, to promote the general good in the best and most effec|tual manner. We act for the general good, when we act upon these principles, even when it is not our immediate aim. The general good is an object too sublime, and too remote, to be the sole impulsive motive to action. It is better ordered, that, in most in|stances, individuals should have a limited aim, Page  91 which they can readily accomplish. To e|very man is assigned his own task. And, if every man do his duty, the general good will be promoted much more successfully, than if it were the aim in every single action.

THE above mentioned principles of acti|on belong to man as such, and constitute what may be called the common nature of man. Many other principles exert them|selves upon particular objects in the instinc|tive manner, without the intervention of a|ny sort of reasoning or reflection, which al|so belong to man as such, appetite for food, lust, &c. Other particular appetites, passi|ons and affections, such as ambition, avarice, envy, love of novelty, of grandeur, &c. constitute the peculiar nature of individuals; because these are diversified among individu|als in very different degrees. It belongs to the science of Ethics, to treat of these parti|cular principles of action. All that needs here be observed of them is, that it is the aim of the general principle of self-love to obtain gratification to these particular principles.

Page  92

CHAP. VI. Of the SOURCE of the LAWS of NATURE, according to some Authors.

HAVING thus at full length explain|ed the nature of man, so far as concerns the present subject, it may not be disagreeable to the reader, to have some re|laxation, before he enters upon the remain|ing part of the work. We shall fill up this interval with a view of some opinions, about the foundation of the laws of nature, which we cannot help judging to be inaccurate, if not erroneous. The episode is, at the same time, strictly connected with the principal subject; because truth is always best illustrat|ed by opposing it to error. That morality depends entirely on the will of God, and that his will creates the only obligation we ly under to be virtuous, is the opinion of several writers. This opinion, in one sense, is true; but far from being true in their sense who inculcate it. And, true or false, it does Page  93 not advance us a single step in the know|ledge of our duty. For what does it avail to know, that morality depends upon the will of God, 'till we once know what his will is? If it be said, there is an original re|velation of it to us in our nature, this can only mean, that our nature itself makes us feel the distinction betwixt virtue and vice, which is the very doctrine above laid down. But, say they, God, from the purity and rectitude of his nature, cannot but approve of good actions, and disapprove of such as are other|ways. Here they don't consider, that this argument supposes a distinction betwixt vir|tue and vice antecedent to the will of God. For if, abstracting from his will, virtue and vice were indifferent, which is supposed in the proposition, we have no Data from the purity of God's nature, or from any other principle, to conclude, that virtue is more the object of his choice than vice. But, fur|ther, the very supposition of the purity and rectitude of the nature of the Divine Being presupposes a taste, feeling, or knowledge in Page  94 us of an essential difference betwixt virtue and vice. Therefore it can never be said, in any proper sense, that our only obli|gation to virtue is the will of God, seeing it is true, that, abstracting altogether from his will, there is an obligation to virtue found|ed in the very frame of our nature.

IN one sense, indeed, it is true, that mora|lity depends upon the will of God, who made us such as we are, with a moral sense to distinguish virtue from vice. But this is saying no more but that it is God's will, or that it is agreeable to him we should be vir|tuous. It is another thing to maintain, that man is indifferent to virtue and vice, and that he is under no obligation to the one more than to the other, unless so far as he is de|termined by the arbitrary will of a superi|or, or sovereign. That a being may be so framed as to answer this description, may be yielded. But, taking man as he is, endued with a moral sense, 'tis a direct contradicti|on to hold, that he is under no obligation to Page  95 virtue, other than the mere will of God. In this sense, morality no more depends upon the will of God, than upon our own will.

WE shall next take a view of a doctrine, which may be set in opposition to the fore|going, and that is Dr. Clarke's demonstra|tion of the unalterable obligation of moral duty. His proposition is,

That, from the eternal and necessary differences of things, there naturally and necessarily arise cer|tain moral obligations, which are of them|selves incumbent on all rational creatures, antecedent to all positive institution, and to all expectation of reward or punish|ment.

And this proposition he demon|strates in the following manner:

That there is a fitness of certain circumstances to certain persons, and an unfitness of o|thers, antecedent to positive laws; and that, from the different relations of different things, there arises a fitness and unfitness of certain behaviour of some persons. For instance, God is superior to man, and Page  96 therefore it is fit that man should worship him.

IF this demonstration, as it is called, be the only or principal foundation of morals, unlucky it is, that a doctrine of such impor|tance should have so long been hid from the publick. The antients, however, carri|ed the obligation of morals perhaps as far as this eminent divine does. And now that the important discovery is made, it is not likely to do great service; considering how little the bulk of mankind are able to enter into abstruse reasoning, and how little influ|ence such reasoning generally has after it is apprehended.

BUT abstruseness is not the only imper|fection of this celebrated argument. It ap|pears to me altogether inconclusive. Laying aside perception and feeling, upon which the doctor founds no part of his demonstration, I should be utterly at a loss, from any given relation betwixt persons, to draw a conclu|sion Page  97 of the fitness or unfitness of a certain course of behaviour.

God is our su|perior, and therefore it is fit we should worship him.

But here I put the que|stion, upon what principle of reason does this conclusion rest? where is the connecting proposition by means of which the infe|rence is drawn? Here the doctor must be utterly at a loss. For the truth of the mat|ter is, that the terms fitness and unfitness, in their present signification, depend entire|ly upon the moral sense. Fitness and unfit|ness, with regard to a certain end or purpose, are qualities of actions which may be gather|ed from experience. But fitness or unfit|ness of actions, as importing right or wrong, as denoting what we ought to do, or abstain from, have truly no meaning, unless upon supposition of a moral sense, which this learned divine never once dreams of taking into his argument. The doctor's error there|fore is a common one, that he endeavours to substitute reason in place of feeling. The fitness of worshipping our Creator was obvi|ous Page  98 to him, as it is to every man, because it is founded in our very nature. It is equal|ly obvious with the preference of honesty to dishonesty. His only mistake is, that, over|looking the law written in his own heart, he vainly imagines that his metaphysical ar|gument is just, because the consequence he draws from it happens to be true. And to sa|tisfy even his most devoted disciples, that this is the case, let us only suppose, that man, by nature, had no approbatory or disappro|batory feeling of actions, it could never be evinced, by any abstract argument whatever, that the worship of the Deity is his duty, or, in the moral sense of fitness, that it is more fit for him to be honest than to be dishonest.

AND, upon this head, we will take the liberty to add, because it is of importance to the subject in general, that, supposing our duty could be made plain to us, by an ab|stract chain of reasoning, yet we have good ground to conclude, from analogy, that the Author of nature has not left our actions to Page  99 be directed by so weak a principle as reason: and a weak principle it must be to the bulk of mankind, who have little capacity to en|ter into abstract reasoning; whatever effect it may have upon the learned and contempla|tive. Nature has dealt more kindly by us. We are compelled by strong and evident feelings, to perform all the different duties of life. Self-preservation is not left to the conduct of reason, but is guarded by the strongest instinct, which makes us carefully, or rather mechanically, avoid every appear|ance of danger. The propagation of the species is enforced by the most importunate of all appetites, and the care of our off|spring by a lively and constant affection. Is nature so deficient, as to leave the duty we owe our neighbour, which stands in the first rank of duties, to be directed by cool reasoning? This is not according to the ana|logy of nature, nor is it fact: witness com|passion, friendship, benevolence, and all the tribe of the social affections. Neither is common justice left upon this footing, the Page  100 most useful, tho' not the most exalted virtue. The transgression of it is attended with a se|vere feeling of disapprobation, and also en|forced by other feelings still more cogent and authoritative.

A LATE author *, whom I shall just mention by the way, gives a whimsical system of morals. He endeavours to reduce all crimes to that of telling a lie; and, because telling a lie is immoral, he concludes, that the several crimes he mentions are immoral. Robbery, for example, is acting or telling a lie; because it is in effect saying, that the goods I seise are mine. Adultery is acting or telling a lie, because it is in effect main|taining that my neighbour's wife is not his, but mine. But not to insist upon the folly of giving all crimes the same character, and confounding their nature, it appears evident, that, in this argument, the very thing is taken for granted which is to be proved. For why is it a virtual lie to rob one of his goods? Is Page  101 it not by imposing upon mankind, who must presume those goods to be mine, which I take as my own? But does not this evident|ly presuppose a difference betwixt meum and tuum, and that I ought not to make free with another's property without his consent? For what other reason are the goods presumed to be mine, but that it is unlawful to meddle with what belongs to another? The same observa|tion will apply to all his other transmutations; for, in acting or telling the lie, it is constantly taken for granted, that the action is wrong in itself. And this very wrong is the circum|stance which is supposed, in the reasoning, to impose upon the spectators. The error there|fore of this author is of the same nature with Dr. Clark's, in his system above examined. It is an evident petitio principii: the very thing is taken for granted which is under|taken to be proved. With regard to the present subject, we have no occasion fur|ther to observe of this curious author, that when he draws so strong consequences from telling a lie, it was to be expected he should Page  102 have set in the clearest light the immorality of that action. But this he does not so much as attempt, leaving it upon the conviction of one's own mind. This indeed he might safely do; but not more safely than to leave upon the same conviction all the other crimes he treats of.

Page  103

CHAP. VII. Of JUSTICE and INJUSTICE.

JUSTICE is that moral virtue which guards property, and gives authority to covenants. And as it is made out above, that justice, being essentially necessary to the main|tenance of society, is one of those primary virtues which are enforced by the strongest natural laws, it would be unnecessary to say more upon the subject, were it not for a doctrine espoused by the author of a treatise upon human nature, that justice, so far from being one of the primary virtues, is not e|ven a natural virtue, but established in soci|ety by a sort of tacit convention, founded upon a notion of public interest. The figure which this author deservedly makes in the learned world, is too considerable, to admit of his being past over in silence. And as it is of great importance to creatures who live in so|ciety, to have justice established upon its most solid foundation, a chapter expressly upon Page  104 this subject may perhaps not be unacceptable to the reader.

OUR author's doctrine, so far as it con|cerns that branch of justice by which proper|ty is secured, comes to this; that, in a state of nature, there can be no such thing as pro|perty; and that the idea of property arises, after justice is established by convention, whereby every one is secured in his possessi|ons. In opposition to this singular doctrine, there is no difficulty to make out, that we have an idea of property, antecedent to any sort of agreement or convention; that proper|ty is founded on a natural principle; and that violation of property is attended with re|morse, and a sense of breach of duty. In following out this subject, it will appear how admirably the springs of human nature are adapted one to another, and to external circumstances.

MAN is by nature fitted for labour, and his enjoyment lyes in action. To this inter|nal Page  105 constitution his external circumstances are finely adapted. The surface of this globe does scarce yield spontaneously food for the greatest savages; but, by labour and indus|try, it is made to furnish not only the con|veniencies, but even the luxuries of life. In this situation, it is wisely ordered, that man should labour for himself and his family, by providing a stock of necessaries for them, be|fore he think of serving others. The great principle of self-preservation directs him to this course. Now this very disposition of providing against want, which is common to man with many other creatures, involves the idea of property. The ground I culti|vate, and the house I build, must be consider|ed as mine, otherways I labour to no pur|pose. There is a peculiar connection be|twixt a man and the fruits of his industry felt by every one; which is the very thing we call property. Were all the conveniencies of life, like air and water, provided to our hand without labour, or were we disposed to labour for the publick, without any self|ish Page  106 affections, there would be no sense of property, at least such a sense would be su|perfluous and unnecessary. But when self-preservation, the most eminent of our prin|ciples of action, directs every individual to labour for himself in the first place; man, without a sense or feeling of property, would be an absurd being. Every man therefore must have a notion of property, with regard to the things acquired by his own labour, for this is the very meaning of working for one's self: property, so far, is necessarily con|nected with self-preservation. But the idea of property is essentially the same, whether it relate to myself, or to another. There is no difference, but what is felt in surveying the goods of any two indifferent persons. And, were it consistent for a man to have the idea of his own property, without having a notion of property in another; such a man would be a very imperfect being, and alto|gether unqualified for society. If it could be made out, that such is the constitution of mankind in general, I should be much dis|posed Page  107 to believe that we were made by a for|tuitous concourse of atoms. But the con|stitution of man is more wisely framed, and more happily adjusted to his external cir|cumstances. Not only man, but all provi|dent creatures who have the hording quali|ty, are endued with the sense or feeling of property; which effectually secures each indi|vidual, in the enjoyment of the fruits of its own labour. And accordingly we find, in perusing the history of mankind, as far back as we have any traces of it, that there ne|ver has been, among any people or tribe, such a thing as the possession of goods in com|mon. For, even before agriculture was in|vented, when men lived upon the natural fruits of the earth, tho' the plenty of pas|ture made separate possessions unnecessary, yet individuals had their own cattle, and en|joyed the produce of their cattle separately.

AND it must not be overlooked, that this sense of property is fortified by another prin|ciple. Every man has a peculiar affection Page  108 for what he possesses, exclusive of others, and for what he calls his own. He applies his skill and industry with great alacrity to im|prove his own subject: his affection to it grows with the time of his possession; and he puts a much greater value upon it, than upon any subject of the same kind that be|longs to another.

HERE then is property established by the constitution of our nature, antecedent to all human conventions. We are led by na|ture to consider goods acquired by our indus|try and labour as belonging to us, and as our own. We have the sense or feeling of property, and conceive these goods to be our own, just as much as we conceive our hands, our feet, and our other members to be our own; and we have a sense or feeling equal|ly clear of the property of others. What is here asserted is a matter of fact, of which there can be no other decisive evidence, than to ap|peal to every man's own feelings. At the same time we need scarce any other proof of this Page  109 fact, than that yours and mine are terms fa|miliar with the greatest savages, and even with children. They must have feelings which correspond to these terms; otherways the terms would not be intelligible to them.

BUT this is not all that is involved in the sense or feeling of property. We not only suffer pain in having our goods taken from us by force; for that would happen were they destroyed or lost by accident. We have the feeling of wrong and injustice. The per|son who robs us has the same feeling, and every mortal who beholds the action consi|ders it as vicious and contrary to right.

BUT it is not sufficient to have overturn|ed the foundation of our author's doctrine. We will proceed to make some observations upon it, to show how ill it hangs together.

AND, in the first place, he appears to rea|son not altogether consistently in making out his system. He founds justice on a general Page  110 sense of common interest *. And yet, at no greater distance than a few pages, he endea|vours to make out †, and does it successful|ly, that public interest is a motive too remote and too sublime to affect the generality of mankind, and to operate, with any force, in actions so contrary to private interest as are frequently those of justice, and common ho|nesty.

IN the second place, abstracting from the sense of property, it does not appear, that a sense of common interest would necessarily lead to such a regulation, as that every man should have the undisturbed enjoyment of what he has acquired by his industry or good fortune. Supposing no sense of pro|perty, I do not see it inconsistent with soci|ety, to have a Lacedemonian constitution, that every man may lawfully take what by address he can make himself master of, with|out force or violence. The depriving us of that to which we have no affection, would Page  111 be doing little more than drinking in our brook, or breathing in our air. At any rate, such a refined regulation would never be considered of importance enough, to be e|stablished, upon the very commencement of society. It must come late, if at all, and be the effect of long experience, and great re|finement in the art of living. It is very true, that, abstaining from the goods of others is a regulation, without which society cannot well subsist. But the necessity of this regu|lation arises from the sense of property, without which a man would suffer little pain in losing his goods, and would have no feel|ing of wrong or injustice. There does not appear any way to evade the force of the a|bove reasoning, other than peremptorily to deny the reality of the sense of property. Others may, but our author, I think, can|not with a good grace do it. An appeal may be safely made to his own authority. For is it not evidently this sense, which has sug|gested to him the necessity, in the institution of every society, to secure individuals in their Page  112 possessions? He cannot but be sensible, that, abstracting from the affection for property, the necessity would be just nothing at all. But our feelings operate silently and imper|ceptibly; and there is nothing more com|mon than to strain for far-fetched arguments in support of conclusions which are sug|gested by the simplest and most obvious feel|ings.

A THIRD observation is, that since our au|thor resolves all virtue into sympathy, why should he with-hold the same principle from being the foundation of justice? why should not sympathy give us a painful sensation, in depriving our neighbour of the goods he has acquired by industry, as well as in depriv|ing him of his life or limb? For it is a fact too evident to be denied, that many men are more uneasy at the loss of their goods, than at the loss of a member.

AND, in the last place, were justice only founded on a general sense of common in|terest, Page  113 it behoved to be the weakest feeling in human nature, especially where injustice committed against a stranger is, with whom we are not connected by any degree of bene|volence. Now this is contrary to all experi|ence. The sense of injustice is one of the strongest that belongs to humanity, and is attended with many peculiar modifications, viz. a feeling of acting contrary to the strict|est obligations of duty, and a feeling of me|rited punishment for the wrong committed. Had our author but once reflected upon these peculiar feelings, he never could have been satisfied with the slight foundation he gives to justice; for these feelings are alto|gether unaccountable upon his system.

THAT branch of justice, which regards promises and covenants, appears also to have a most solid foundation in human nature; notwithstanding of what is laid down by our author in two distinct propositions †,

That a promise would not be intelligible, before Page  114 human conventions had established it; and that even, if it were intelligible, it would not be attended with any moral obligation.

As man is framed for socie|ty, mutual trust and confidence, without which there can be no society, enter into the character of the human species. Cor|respondent to these, are the principles of ve|racity and fidelity. And, in this particular, among many, it is admirable to observe how accurately these principles are adapted to each other. Veracity and fidelity would be of no significancy, were men not dispos|ed to have faith, and to rely upon what is said to them, whether in the way of evi|dence or engagement. Faith and trust, on the other hand, would be very hurtful prin|ciples, were mankind void of veracity and fidelity: for, upon that supposition, the world would be over-run with fraud and deceit. Supposing a society once establish|ed, the security of property, as well as of life, is indeed essentially necessary to its continuance and preservation. For, were Page  115 men in danger from their fellows, the con|dition of man behoved to be the same with that of savage animals, who, upon that very account, shun all manner of commerce. But fidelity and veracity are still more essential to society, because, without these principles, there cannot be such a thing as society at all: it could never have a beginning. 'Tis justly observed by our author, that man, in a solitary state, is the most helpless of be|ings; and that by society alone he is en|abled to supply his defects, and to acquire a superiority over his fellow creatures; that by conjunction of forces, our power is aug|mented; by partition of employments, we work to better purpose; and, by mutual suc|cour, we acquire security. But, without mu|tual fidelity and trust, we could enjoy none of these advantages: without them, we could not have any comfortable intercourse with one another: so that they are necessa|ry even to the constitution of society. Hence it is, that treachery is the vilest of crimes, and what mankind have ever held in the Page  116 utmost abhorrence. It is worse than mur|der, because it forms a character, and is di|rected against all mankind; whereas, murder is only a transitory act, directed against a single person. Infidelity is of the same spe|cies with treachery. The essence of both crimes is the same, to wit, breach of trust. Treachery has only this aggravating circum|stance, that it turns the confidence reposed in me, against the friend who trusts me. Now breach of promise is a species of infi|delity; and therefore our author has but a single choice. He must either maintain, that treachery is no crime, or that breach of promise is a crime. And, in fact, that it is so, every man must bear evidence to him|self. The performance of a deliberate pro|mise has, in all ages, been considered as a duty. We have that sense and feeling of a promise, as what we are bound to perform by a strict obligation; and the breach of pro|mise is attended with the same natural stings, which attend other crimes, sciz. remorse, and merited punishment.

Page  117 IT is evident from the above, that it is but an imperfect conception of a promise to consider it as our author does *, with rela|tion only to the person who makes the pro|mise. In this internal act two persons are concerned; the person who makes the pro|mise, and the person to whom the promise is made. Were there by nature no trust nor reliance upon promises, breach of pro|mise would be a matter of indifferency. Therefore the essence of a promise consists in keeping faith. The reliance upon us, produced by our own act, constitutes the obligation. We feel ourselves bound to per|form: we consider it as our duty. And when we violate our engagement, we have a sense of moral turpitude in disappointing the person who relied upon our faith.

WE shall close this subject, concerning the foundation of justice, with a general reflec|tion. Running over every branch of our du|ty, what concerns ourselves as well as our Page  118

. . . .Mary Catherine Moran's introduction to the less widely circulated but important Essays [on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion] gives a short biography followed by a well-sketched overview of Kames's project to construct a moral system "on the principles of natural law" (ix), summarizing the arguments on morality, justice, necessity, and natural theology that he gives in the separate discussions comprising the work. Moran's comparison of the more or less static concept of human nature given in Essays with the better-known savage-to-civilization progress theory of Kames's Sketches of the History of Man(1774) illuminates the significant tension in Kames's work between historicism and commitment to a notion of a providential system. Both works [Elements of Criticism and Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion] include, in addition to well-judged footnotes, new indexes and short bibliographies of recent secondary literature. These volumes will now make it significantly easier to give Kames his full due as a major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment in the classroom.

Eighteenth-Century Scotland
Spring 2006

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