« PreviousContinue »
Nearly allied to the theory which would resolve all our notions of right and wrong into political enactment as their source, is that of Mandeville, which represents what the world has agreed to call virtue as the mere production of political skill, the sacrifice of one kind of individual gratification for the sake of attaining gratification of another kind, namely, that praise for which it is alleged that the natural appetite of man is insatiable. According to this theory, the exercise of virtue exhibits only the indulgence of human frailty, and the practice of hypocrisy.
That which gives to this, and to all similar theories, any plausibility, is the unquestionable corruption of human nature, which so often exists under the garb of virtue, and which is so apt to mingle itself with all that is praiseworthy in man. But, to admit the truth of Mandeville's doctrines, were to admit that the nature of man is degraded to an extent far beyond what either Scripture or reason authorizes us to believe. This theory is, besides, fundamentally erroneous, inasmuch as it is opposed to the fixed and immutable distinctions of morality: it can only be viewed as a satirical representation of the vices of some of the species : it therefore, neither requires nor merits any further refutation.
defence. The ruling power cannot be withdrawn from those to whoin it has been coinmitted ; nor can they be punished for misgovernment. The interpretation of the laws is to be sought, not from the comments of philosophers, but from the authority of the ruler ; otherwise society would every moment be in danger of resolving itself into the discordant elements of which it was at first composed. The will of the magistrate, therefore, is to be regarded as the ultimate standard of right and wrong, and his voice to be listened to by every citizen as the voice of coriscience.-Professor Stewart's Dissertation, &c. p. i. p. 63.
This doctrine. which Hobbes revived, was held, in substance, by several of the ancient philosophers. Plato speaks of some, who maintained “that the things which are accounted just, are not so by nature ; for that men are always differing about them, and making new constitutions: and as often as they are thus constituted, they obtain authority, being made just by art and by the laws, not by any natural force or virtue." (Plato de Leg. 1. 10.) The same doctrine was held by Aristippus, Pyrrho, and in general by the Sceptics.
The theory of Clarke and of Wollaston (for the theory supported by both these distinguished writers, though somewhat differently expressed, is radically the same) is of an opposite description. It is the system, not only of men of genius, but of men who were lovers of what is virtuous and noble in our common nature. According to them, virtue consists in acting agreeably to the fitness, or to the truth of things.
It is undoubtedly fit, or congruous, that a moral agent should act virtuously, and it is unfit and incongruous, that he should act viciously; but it is also obvious that there is a fitness in all that takes place under the natural and moral government of God for producing certain effects. There is in vice an adaptation to produce miserý, as there is in virtue to produce happiness, and the fitness in the one case is as great as that in the other.
This theory assumes what its authors design it to account for and explain,--the origin of moral distinctions. To say that virtue consists in acting according to the fitness of things, is only saying, that virtue consists in acting in conformity with virtue,-a position which contains nothing original or new.
The authors of this doctrine, though they have failed in accomplishing that for which their theory was formed and set forth, have had the merit, by the illustrations which they have employed in its exposition, of
presenting in a forcible light, the arguments which prove that man is now placed under a supreme system of moral government. Their reasonings also have the tendency of clearly shewing the immutability of moral distinctions, and that man cannot be vicious without being criminal and miserable.
It ought also to be remarked, that while they have fallen into the error of regarding all morality as the object of the understanding exclusively, they have avoided the opposite, and much more dangerous error, of considering it solely as matter of sensation and feeling. Morality, as has been already shewn, is the object both of that moral feeling or sense with which our nature is endowed, and of that reason which is the chief characteristic of man. “ It is by reason that we discover those general rules of justice by which we ought to regulate our actions; and it is by the same faculty that we form those more vague and indeterminate ideas of what is prudent, of what is decent, of what is generous and noble.”
The principle of Hume's theory of morals is the doctrine of utility; the falseness of which, as the measure and rule of virtue, has been already fully shewn. If the question were, Do virtuous actions conduce to the happiness of their authors and of mankind, we should, without hesitation, answer in the affirmative. It is quite a different thing to assert, that the tendency to produce this happiness is the sole ground of moral distinctions.
Mr. Hume, the very ingenious advocate of this doctrine, has himself furnished the argument by which we may prove it to be untenable. “ We ought not to imagine,” says he, “because an inanimate object may be useful as well as a man, that, therefore, it ought also, according to this system, to merit the appellation of virtuous. The sentiments excited by utility are in the two cases very different; and the one is mixed with affection, esteem, approbation, and not the other.”
Now, if the affection, esteem, and approbation with which we contemplate the moral actions of moral agents, are not excited when we contemplate the utility of a steam-engine, it follows that virtue is not constituted and measured by mere utility. Actions are not accounted virtuous as they appear to be useful, but in consequence of something else of which usefulness is only an accompaniment. It is thus evident, that “moral esteem and approbation are not commensurable with mere physical usefulness; but are feelings of a peculiar class, which even he, who would represent actions as felt to be virtuous only because they are regarded as physically useful, is obliged to pre-suppose. Why should I love that which may be productive of benefit to all the individuals of the world, more than that which would be productive of similar benefit only to one individual. Or, to put a question still stronger, why should I love that which would be of advantage even to one individual, more than that which would be of injury to every being but myself? The only answer which can be given, even according to the theory that supposes all virtue to consist in utility is, that it is impossible for me, by my very nature, not to feel approbation of that which is generally useful; disapprobation of that which is in its general consequences hurtful."
Hence the assumption of that moral feeling, the origin of which it is the avowed design of the advocate of the theory of utility to account for and explain.
The selfish system of morals is only a modification of the theory of utility. It represents each individual as acting, not for the general good, but for his own personal gratification and advantage. The remarks which have been made on this system, as advocated by Paley, are sufficient to shew its futility. It is proved by our moral feelings, and by the testimony of scripture, to be false. Of all the modifications of the selfish system, this is the most exceptionable, since it connects the excess of selfishness with the image of Him who is infinitely good, and whose tender mercies are over all his works.
The last system of morals to which I shall allude is that of Dr. Smith, as expounded in his theory of Moral Sentiments, a work, the fascinating eloquence of which is far above any eulogium of mine. In its minor details and illustrations, it is perhaps unrivalled in the depth of thought and philosophical beauty which are exhibited. It is not, however, to these, but to its leading doctrine, that I would direct the attention of the reader.
To this doctrine I alluded when treating of the affections. We do not, according to Dr. Smith, approve or disapprove of actions immediately on our becoming acquainted with their nature and consequences. It is previously necessary that we sympathize with, or enter into, the feelings of the agent, and place ourselves in the circumstances of him who is the object of the action. If we can fully sympathize with the agent,