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RECTITUDE AND VIRTUE.
RELATIONS. - EXPEDIENCY, PRUDENCE, AND
VIRTUE. ORIGIN OF MORAL DISTINCTIONS AS RELATED TO THE DIVINE
COINCIDENCE OF INSTINCT AND REASON
OF FAITH AND
REASON OF PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION.
It will be remembered that in observing a moral act we went backward to its source. In so doing we found a moral constitution. That constitution we have examined, and have found its end and law. In doing this we considered those voluntary states of mind which are in themselves good or evil, virtuous or vicious.
We know immediately and intuitively that love is good, and malignity evil; and it is inconceivable that their nature should be changed by any will. They are opposites, as are light and darkness, hardness and softness; one may give place to the other, but can never become the other. This, I suppose, is what is meant by the eternal and immutable distinctions of morals.
It was then said that in passing outwards from a moral action we found right and wrong, utility, expediency, general consequences. It will be next in order to examine these, and to inquire how far their claims may be reconciled with those of virtue without confounding the two.
As has been said, right is often used as synonymous with virtuous, and wrong with vicious. The right, also, seems to be used as synonymous with moral goodness; at least if that be not its meaning I am unable to say what it is. But by right is also meant conformity to a rule or law,
tendency to an end, accordance with fixed relations, and by wrong, the reverse. “Right and wrong," says Dr. Wayland,“ depend upon the relations under which beings are created, and are invariable.” In this sense actions may be right or wrong without reference to the character or intention of the agent. In the first sense they cannot, and the trouble has been that these terms have been used, now to indicate virtue as originating in will, and now to indicate a quality, sometimes called moral, that has no reference to intention. So far as they are used in the first sense we have already considered them, or rather that which they indicate; it is in the second sense that they now claim our attention.
Plainly the results of human conduct in this life are not determined solely by the dispositions and intentions from which they spring. We live under a natural as well as under a moral government, and the first is the instrument, frame-work, and prophecy of the second. We are surrounded by other beings, and by an external nature that is complicated, involving numerous substances, and forces, and laws. These beings, this nature, these substances, and forces, and laws, have a determinate constitution in accordance with which we may act upon them and they upon us, and this action, at least so far as nature is concerned, will not be affected by our state of mind as good or evil, or by any intention that may spring from that. Between us and external nature there are fixed relations, and the result will depend upon our acting or not acting in accordance with those relations.
A being wholly virtuous may act in entire accordance with the nature of the beings and substances around him, and then the whole result will be right and good. Again, with character unchanged, but ignorant of the relations in
which he is placed, the same being may so act as to produce suffering to himself, or others, or both. He may intend to preserve his health, but be ignorant, and unavoidably so, of the effect of a want of ventilation, and in consequence may live for years in debility and suffering. Such a person would not act in accordance with the nature of things;" or, as it has sometimes been expressed, with “the fitness of things ;” or, as it has been expressed again, with “the truth of things;” or, once again, with “ the relations in which he was placed.”
From the very nature of man it is impossible he should act except in some relation. Hence the consideration of relations — not merely of things as they are in themselves, but in their relations must always enter into our estimate both of propriety and of duty.
So numerous, indeed, and complex are these relations, and so intimately is their right adjustment connected with human well-being, that not a few moralists have supposed moral obligation, and so the whole science of morals, to be founded on them. “ It is fit,” says Dr. Samuel Clarke, " that man should obey God, and therefore he ought to obey him.” It is true, according to Wollaston, that fresh air is needed for health, and he who acts as if it were not, acts a lie, and therefore does wrong.
6 The relation of parent and child,” says Dr. Wayland, “is constituted by God, therefore men are bound to act in accordance with that relation.” He asserts, moreover, that the sense of obligation arises immediately on the perception of the relation.
But it does not seem to be true, it may be observed here, that a child is bound to obey his parent simply because he is his parent. A parent may be an idiot, or insane, or intoxicated, or wholly abandoned to vice, and then the law makes provision for the guardianship of the
child, that is, for placing him where he need not obey the parent. The sole reason why the child is to obey the parent is the presumption that the end for which God made him will be thus best secured. If it could be certainly known that that end would thus be defeated, the child would not be under obligation to obey, but the reverse. Relations cannot indicate what is good. They may, and do, what is right, but so far as they do this they may all be reduced to one, that is, the relation of any act which a moral being may be required to do, to his end. So absolutely is the will of God revealed in that, that it is inconceivable he should lay a being under obligation to do anything not in accordance with his highest end.
But while we do not find the foundation of morals in the nature, or fitness, or truth of things, or in any mere relations, we may not overlook the important part which a perception of these was intended to play in the regulation of human conduct. Not only, as has been said, may a virtuous man fail to conform to the nature of things, or to the relations in which he is placed, and thus suffer; but a man not virtuous may conform to them, and be rewarded. Beneficial effects will follow without respect to the motive. There is a sense in which an action thus conformed to the nature of things is right although the motive may not be good. It is, as we say, right in itself; it is conformed to the nature of things; it is fit, and suitable, and proper, and what ought to be done. Let a man be outwardly honest; let him pay his debts, and tell the truth, and though he may do it simply because he thinks honesty the best policy, and so not be virtuous, yet the acts are right in themselves, and the confidence of men in each other and the prosperity of the community will be promoted by them. On the other hand, from an imperfect apprehension of relations, a person may take the redress of his private wrongs into his own hands, or may buy and sell lottery tickets, or intoxicating drinks, or perhaps be a polygamist, and while the motive may be good, that will not prevent the disastrous effects of these acts as wrong in themselves. Sooner or later such acts will work out their own retribution.
It cannot, indeed, be too clearly seen that into the whole system of nature as related to us, into the human constitution in its very texture, into the constitution of society, there are not only inwrought laws of reward for conformity to relations and fixed laws, but also laws of retribution that seem to execute themselves. Violate a law of nature by stepping from a precipice, and you fall; violate a law of your organization by intemperance, and your punishment will be in proportion to the offence. And so of society. Violate the law of its organization as one whole so that portions of that whole are neglected and degraded, and that very violation will work out a sure retribution. In all this we see only the working of fixed law without regard to motives or character. A mistake is punished just as severely as a wilful violation of the law.
There is thać in the working of these laws that is precisely as if there were a moral instinct in all these departments. As with instinct, let everything else be as it should, and these laws will work right, and produce only good; but let there be perversion and derangement, and then, like instinct again, they will work blindly and disastrously. They may not overturn, but will utterly disregard all moral distinctions.
If, now, we carry the working of these laws into the mind, we shall have the whole of what many believe to be the moral system of the universe. They believe there is no reward or punishment except from the operation of