Page images
PDF
EPUB

The Principle of Utility proved to be Untenable.

61

[ocr errors]

estimate all the evil of which a single act of impiety and immorality may be productive.

If, to be instrumental in the restoration to virtue and to happiness, of a being destined for immortality, is a measure of good which a single individual may, by his exertions or example, be the means of attaining; an individual also may, by his exertions or example, be the means of producing an extent of moral ruin which the conceptions of man cannot reach. Hence Scripture teaches us that the results of every man's conduct here will meet him in the day of final retribution; and that his eternal condition, either of happiness or of misery, shall be fixed accordingly.

“ Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

Nor are these remarks merely applicable to those actions, respecting the morality or immorality of which, it is presumed, there cannot exist a difference of opinion. Actions, which may seem trivial, and the real character of which as to right or wrong may appear doubtful to those who have not divine revelation to guide them, may be productive of important and enda less consequences. How desirable, how necessary, is it for moral agents to have an infallible rule of action prescribed to them by Him whose wisdom and knowledge are infinite ?

But if we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions, how can we derive from the principle of expediency the rule to direct our moral conduct ? “ Is the degree of expediency which we can discern, in any case such as to justify us in inferring that we have a tolerable insight into general expediency ? Surely no one will answer in the affir

[ocr errors]

mative. As well might an Abyssinian pretend to delineate the whole course of the Nile, in consequence of having traced the windings of the infant river for a few miles contiguous to his hut. As well might a fisherman infer, that his line, which has reached the bottom of the creek in which he exercises his trade, is capable of fathoming the depth of the Atlantic.

“ If this argument wanted confirmation, it might receive it from a view of the moral, to say nothing of the natural, government of the world. Even though we are previously convinced that the great object of the Almighty is the happiness of his creatures, in numerous instances we see very imperfectly how the detail of his operations conduces to the end which he has in view. Sometimes presumptuous ignorance would lead us to imagine that we perceive circumstances which militate against it, as the permission of moral evil; others, wherein there is an appearance of imperfection, as in the late establishment and partial diffusion of Christianity ; and numbers which seem indifferent to the design proposed, or neither fully nor directly to conduce to it. If, then, we are so far from discovering the propriety and excellence of the parts of a system, which we are certain is framed in exact conformity to the standard of general expediency, we may be convinced how little our utmost sagacity can discover of the ultimate tendency and effects of our conduct; we may be assured that we are wholly unqualified to determine whether those actions, which seem to further the particular expediency within the reach of our foresight, would or would not conduce to general good; that the limited knowledge of expe

diency attainable by the wisest of men is unfit to be adopted as the basis of moral rectitude ; and that if it were adopted, we should very frequently be acting in direct opposition to the will of God, at the time when we had fondly persuaded ourselves that we were most strenuously employed in promoting it*.

CHAPTER XII.

ON THE DIFFERENT THEORIES OF MORALS.

Having shewn the grounds and principles of moral obligation, and having attempted to prove that moral distinctions are immutable and eternal,--I shall conclude this division of my subject with a few observations on the different theories of morals.

The object of all such theories is to account for the origin of our moral sentiments. The earliest formed in modern times is that of Hobbes, an author whose acuteness and genius have seldom been surpassed. A favourite dogma with him, in common with some of the ancients, was, that the notion of the being and providence of God, and of religious worship, is the effect of human fear and weakness. Yet, he elsewhere asserts, that the mechanical contrivance of the human body affords so clear a proof of a wise Maker, that he must be without a mind who does not admit its

* Gisborne's Principles of Moral Philosophy.

having been made by a Being of intelligence*. Our ideas of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, have their origin, according to him, in the institutions of priests and legislators, that is, in the authority of political enactment.

To enter on the refutation of this theory, would only be to repeat what has been already stated. If the observations formerly made are not sufficient to shew that moral distinctions are fixed and unchangeable, I cannot hope to produce conviction of this by any additional illustrations.

Who does not remark the utter impotency of all the legislators of the world in changing one virtue into vice, or, in altering the essential laws of right and wrong? Has the most profligate prince ever presumed to declare that his government patronised deceit, fraud, cruelty, and oppression, and that only the deceitful, the fraudulent, the cruel, and oppressive, were to expect protection and reward? Has the tyrant at the head of his mercenary armies acknowledged that he was influenced solely by unprincipled ambition, and that he led them to the field, not to combat for the liberty and happiness of mankind, but to rivet more firmly the chains of the conquerors and the conquered?

“ There is, indeed, a power,” as has been remarked, by which princes decree justice; but it is a power above the mere voice of kings—a power, which has previously fixed in the breasts of those who receive the decree, a love of the very virtue which kings, even when kings are most virtuous, can only enforce. And it is well for man that the feeble authorities of this

* Hobb. de Homine, 1. i. c. 1,

on his

earth cannot change the sentiments of our hearts with the same facility, as they can throw fetters on our hands. There would, then, indeed, be no hope to the oppressed, the greater the oppression, the stronger motive would there be to make obedience to oppression a virtue, and every species of guilt, which the powerful might love to exercise, amiable in the eyes even of the miserable victims. All virtue in such circumstances would soon perish from the earth. Nature has not thrown us on the world with such feeble principles as these: she has given us virtue of which no power can deprive us, and has fixed in the soul of Him whom more than fifty nations obey, a restraint

power, from which the servile obedience of all the nations of the globe could not absolve him *.”

* The fundamental doctrines inculcated in the political writings of Hobbes are contained in the following propositions :-All men are by nature equal ; and prior to government, they had all an equal right to enjoy the good things of the world. Man, too, is (according to Hobbes) by nature a solitary and purely selfish animal ; the social union being entirely an interested league, suggested by prudential views of personal advantage. The necessary consequence is, that a state of nature must be a state of perpetual warfare, in which no individual has any other means of safety than his own strength or ingenuity; and in which there is no room for regular industry, because no secure enjoyment of its fruits. In confirmation of this view of the origin of society, Hobbes appeals to facts falling daily within the circle of our own experience. “Does not a man, (he asks,) when taking a journey, arm himself, and seek to go well accompanied ? When going to sleep, does he not lock his doors. Nay, even in his own house, docs he not lock his chests? Does he not there as much accuse mankind by his actions, as I do by my words."

For the sake of peace and security, it is necessary that each individual should surrender a part of his natural right, and be contented with such a share of liberty as he is willing to allow to others; or, to use Hobbes's own language, every man must divest himself of the right he has to all things by nature ; the right of all men to all things being in effect no better than if no man had a right to any thing." In consequence of this transference of natural rights to an individual, or to a body of individuals, the multitude become one person, under the name of a state or republic, by which person the common will and power are exercised for the common

VOL. II.

« PreviousContinue »