The Philosophy of the Moral Feelings
by John Abercrombie
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By certain intellectual operations, man acquires the knowledge of a series of facts,—he remembers them,—he separates and classifies them,—and forms them into new combinations. But, with the most active exercise of all these operations, his mind might present an accumulation of facts, without order, harmony, or utility;—without any principle of combination, or combined only in those fantastic and extravagant forms which appear in the conceptions of the maniac. It is Reason that reduces the whole into order and harmony,—by comparing, distinguishing, and tracing their true analogies and relations,—and then by deducing truths as conclusions from the whole. It is in this manner particularly, that a man acquires a knowledge of the uniform actions of bodies on each other,—and, confiding in the uniformity of these actions, learns to direct his means to the ends which he has in view. He knows also his own relations to other sentient beings,—and adapts his conduct to them, according to the circumstances in which he is placed,—the persons with whom he is connected,—and the objects which he wishes to accomplish. He learns to accommodate his measures to new circumstances as they arise,—and thus is guided and directed through his physical relations. When reason is suspended, all this harmony is destroyed. The visions of the mind are acted upon as facts; things are combined into fantastic forms, entirely apart from their true relations;—conduct is widely at variance with what circumstances require;—ends are attempted by means which have no relation to them;—and the ends themselves are equally at variance with those which are suitable to the circumstances of the individual. Such is the maniac, whom accordingly we shut up, to prevent him from being dangerous to the public;—for he has been known to mistake so remarkably the relation of things, and the conduct adapted to his circumstances, as to murder his most valuable friend, or his own helpless infant.

In all this process there is a striking analogy to certain conditions of the moral feelings, and to the control which is exercised over them by the principle of Conscience. By self-love, a man is led to seek his own gratification or advantage;—and the desires direct him to certain objects by which these propensities may be gratified. But the affections carry forth his views to other men with whom he is connected by various relations, and to the offices of justice, veracity, and benevolence, which arise out of them. Conscience is the regulating power, which, acting upon the desires and affections, as reason does upon a series of facts, preserves among them harmony and order. It does so by repressing the propensity of selfishness, and reminding the man of the true relation between regard to his own interest and the duties he owes to other men. It regulates his senses and pursuits, by carrying his views beyond present feelings and present gratifications, to future times and future consequences,—and by raising his attention to his relation to the great moral Governor of the universe. He thus learns to adapt his conduct and pursuits, not to present and transient feelings, but to an extended view of his great and true interests as a moral being. Such is conscience,—still, like reason, pointing out the moral ends a man ought to pursue, and guiding him in the means by which he ought to pursue them;—and the man does not act in conformity with the constitution of his nature, who does not yield to conscience the supremacy and direction over all his other feelings and principles of action. But the analogy does not stop here;—for we can also trace a condition in which this controlling influence of conscience is suspended or lost. I formerly endeavoured to trace the manner in which this derangement arises, and have now only to allude to its influence on the harmony of the moral feelings. Self-love degenerates into low selfish gratification: the desires are indulged without any other restraint than that which arises from a mere selfish principle,—as a regard to health, perhaps in some degree to reputation; the affections are exercised only in so far as similar principles impose a certain degree of attention to them: present and momentary impulses are acted upon, without any regard to future results: conduct is adapted to present gratification, without the perception either of its moral aspect, or its consequences to the man himself as a responsible being; and without regard to the means by which these feelings are gratified. In all this violation of moral harmony, there is no derangement of the ordinary exercise of judgment. In the most remarkable example that can be furnished by the history of human depravity, the man may be as acute as ever in the details of business or the pursuits of science. There is no diminution of his sound estimate of physical relations,—for this is the province of reason. But there is a total derangement of his sense and approbation of moral relations,—for this is conscience. Such a condition of mind, then, appears to be, in reference to the moral feelings, what insanity is in regard to the intellectual. The intellectual maniac fancies himself a king, surrounded by every form of earthly splendour,—and this hallucination is not corrected even by the sight of his bed of straw and all the horrors of his cell. The moral maniac pursues his way, and thinks himself a wise and a happy man:—- but feels not that he is treading a downward course, and is lost as a moral being.

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In the preceding observations respecting the moral principle or conscience, I have alluded chiefly to its influence in preserving a certain harmony among the other feelings,—in regulating the desires by the indications of moral purity,—and presenting self-love from interfering with the duties and affections which we owe to other men. But there is another and a most important purpose which is answered by this faculty, and that is to make us acquainted with the moral attributes of the Deity. In strict philosophical language we ought perhaps to say, that this high purpose is accomplished by a combined operation of conscience and reason; but, however this may be, the process appeals clear and intelligible in its nature, and fully adapted to the end now assigned to it. From a simple exercise of mind, directed to the great phenomena of nature, we acquire the knowledge of a First Cause,—a being of infinite power and infinite wisdom; and this conclusion is impressed upon us in a peculiar manner, when, from our own bodily and mental endowments, we infer the attributes of him who framed us:—"he that planted the ear," says a sacred writer, "shall he not hear;—he that formed the eye, shall he not see;—he that teacheth man knowledge, shall not he know?" When we trace backwards a series of finite yet intelligent beings, we must arrive at one of two conclusions:—We must either trace the series through an infinite and eternal succession of finite beings, each the cause of the one which succeeded it;—or we must refer the commencement of the series to one great intelligent being, himself uncaused, infinite, and eternal. To trace the series to one being, finite, yet uncaused, is totally inadmissible; and not less so is the conception of finite beings in an infinite and eternal series. The belief of one infinite being, self-existent and eternal, is, therefore, the only conclusion at which we can arrive, as presenting any characters of credibility or truth. The superintending care, the goodness, and benevolence of the Deity, we learn, with a feeling of equal certainty, from the ample provision he has made for supplying the wants and ministering to the comfort of all the creatures whom he has made. This part of the argument, also, is in the clearest manner insisted upon in the sacred writings; when the apostle Paul, in calling upon the people of Lystra to worship the true God, who made heaven and earth, adds, as a source of knowledge from which they ought to learn his character;—"he left not himself without a witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness."

A being, thus endowed with infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, we cannot conceive to exist without moral feelings; and, by a process equally obvious, we arrive at a distinct knowledge of these, when, from the moral perceptions of our own minds, we infer the moral attributes of him who thus formed us. We have certain impressions of justice, veracity, compassion, and moral purity, in regard to our own conduct,—we have a distinct approbation of these qualities in others,—and we attach a feeling of disapprobation to the infringement of them. By a simple step of reasoning, which conveys an impression of absolute conviction, we conclude, that he, who formed us with these feelings, possesses, in his own character, corresponding moral attributes, which, while they resemble in kind, must infinitely exceed in degree, those qualities in the wisest and the best of men. In our actual observation of mankind, we perceive these attributes impaired in their exercise by human weakness, distorted by human passion,—and impeded in their operation by personal wants, personal feelings, and selfish interests. But, apart from such deteriorating causes, we have a certain abstract idea of the full and perfect exercise of those qualities; and it is in this pure and perfect form that we ascribe them to the Almighty. In him, they can be impeded by no weakness,—distorted by no passion, and impaired in their operation by no personal interest. We therefore conclude him to be perfect in the exercise of all these moral attributes, and to take the most rigid estimate of any infringement of them by man:—this is what we call the holiness of God. Even the man, who has himself departed from moral rectitude, still feels a power within, which points with irresistible force to what is purity, and fixes upon him a conviction that God is pure.

When we view such a Being, apart from any inferior creature, all seems harmony and consistency;—we have only to contemplate him as high and holy, and enjoying perfect happiness in his own spotless attributes. But, when we view him in relation to man in a state of moral discipline, and, in that state, tainted deeply with moral evil, a difficulty arises of an appalling magnitude. There is ample scope now, we perceive, for the exercise of his holiness, veracity, and justice; and he appeals in sublime and terrible majesty, in his exalted character as a moral governor. But, amid such a display, there is an obvious interruption to the exercise of compassion,—especially in that essential department of it,—mercy or forgiveness. This attribute may be exercised without restraint by an individual, where his own interests alone are concerned, because in him it involves only a sacrifice of self-love. But forgiveness in a moral governor either implies an actual change of purpose, or supposes a former decision to have been made without sufficient knowledge of, or due attention to, all the facts by which he ought to have been influenced;—it denotes either undue rigour in the law, or ignorance or inattention in him who administers it, and it may very often interfere with the essential requisites of justice. But, in a moral governor of infinite perfection, there can be neither ignorance of facts nor change of purpose;—the requirements of his justice must stand unshaken; and his law, written on the hearts of all his rational creatures, must be upheld, in the face of the universe, as holy, and just, and good. Is, then, the exercise of mercy to be excluded from our conception of the divine character,—and is there no forgiveness with God.—The soundest inductions of philosophy, applied to the actual state of man, bring us to this momentous question; but the highest efforts of human science fail to answer it. It is in this our utmost need, that we are met by the dictates of revelation, and are called to humble the pride of our reason before that display of the harmony and integrity of the divine character. We there learn the truths, far beyond the inductions of human science, and the utmost conceptions of human thought,—that an atonement is made, a sacrifice offered;—and that the exercise of forgiveness is consistent with the perfections of the Deity. Thus, by a process of the mind itself, which seems to present every element of fair and logical reasoning, we arrive at a full conviction of the necessity, and the moral probability, of that truth which forms the great peculiarity of the Christian revelation. More than any other in the whole circle of religious belief it rises above the inductions of science, while reason, in its soundest conclusions, recognises its probability, and receives its truth; and it stands forth alone, simply proposed to our belief, and offered to our acceptance, on that high but peculiar evidence by which is supported the testimony of God.

The truth of these considerations is impressed upon us in the strangest manner, when we turn our attention to the actual moral condition of mankind. When we contemplate man, as he is displayed to us by the soundest inductions of philosophy,—his capacity for distinguishing truth from falsehood, and evil from good; the feelings and affections which bind him to his fellow men, and the powers which enable him to rise to intercourse with God:—when we consider the power, which sits among his other principles and feelings, as a faithful monitor and guide, carrying in itself a rule of rectitude without any other knowledge, and a right to govern without reference to any other authority; we behold a fabric complete and harmonious in all its parts, and eminently worthy of its Almighty Maker;—we behold an ample provision for peace, and order, and harmony, in the whole moral world. But, when we compare with these inductions the actual state of man, as displayed to us in the page of history, and in our own daily observation, the conviction is forced upon us, that some mighty change has taken place in this beauteous system, some marvellous disruption of its moral harmony. The manner in which this condition arose,—or the origin of moral evil under the government of God, is a question entirely beyond the reach of the human faculties.—It is one of those, however, on which it is simply our duty to keep in mind, that our business is, not with the explanation, but with the facts;—for, even by the conclusions of philosophy, we are compelled to believe, that man has fallen from his high estate,—and that a pestilence has gone abroad over the face of the moral creation.

In arriving at this conclusion, it is not with the inductions of moral science alone, that we compare or contrast the actual state of man. For one bright example has appeared in our world, in whom was exhibited human nature in its highest state of order and harmony. In regard to the mighty purposes which he came to accomplish, indeed, philosophy fails us, and we are called to submit the inductions of our reason to the testimony of God. But, when we contemplate his whole character purely as a matter of historical truth,—the conviction is forced upon us, that this was the highest state of man;—and the inductions of true science harmonize with the impression of the Roman Centurion, when, on witnessing the conclusion of the earthly sufferings of the Messiah, he exclaimed—"truly this was the Son of God."

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When we endeavour to trace the manner, in which mankind have departed so widely from this high pattern, we arrive at moral phenomena of which we can offer no explanation. But an inquiry of much greater importance is to mark the process by which, in individual instances, conscience ceases to be the regulating principle of the character; and this is a simple and legitimate object of philosophical observation. There cannot, indeed, be an inquiry of more intense and solemn interest, than to trace the chain of sequences which has been established in the mind of man as a moral being. We can view it only as a matter of fact, without being able to refer it to any other principle than the will of Him who framed us;—but the facts which are before us claim the serious attention of every man, who would cultivate that most important of all pursuits,—the knowledge of his own moral condition. The fact to which I chiefly allude is a certain relation, formerly referred to, between the truths which are calculated to act upon us as moral causes, and the mental emotions which ought to result from them;—and between these emotions and a certain conduct which they tend to produce. If the due harmony between these be carefully cultivated, the result is a sound moral condition; but by every instance in which this harmony is violated, a morbid influence is introduced, which gains strength in each succeeding volition, and carries disorder through the moral economy. We have formerly illustrated this important moral process, by the relation between the emotion of compassion, and the conduct which ought to arise from it. If this tendency of the emotion be diligently cultivated, the result is the habit of active benevolence;—but, if the emotion be violated, its influence is progressively diminished, and a character is produced of cold and barren selfishness.

A similar chain of sequences is to be observed respecting the operation of those great truths, which, under the regulating power of conscience, are calculated to act as moral causes in our mental economy;—we may take, for example, the truths relating to the character and perfections of the Deity, and the influence which these ought to produce upon every rational being. We have seen the knowledge which we derive from the light of nature respecting the attributes of God, when, from his works around us, we discover him as a being of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; and when, from the moral impressions of our own minds, we infer his perfections as a moral Governor of infinite holiness, justice, and truth. By a proper direction of the mind to the truths which are thus conveyed to us respecting the Deity, there would naturally arise a corresponding chain of emotions of which he is the object. These are a sense of veneration towards him, as infinitely great, wise, and powerful,—of love and thankfulness, as infinitely good,—and of habitual regard to his authority and will, as a moral governor of purity and justice, and as requiring a corresponding character in all his creatures. A close and constant relation ought to be preserved between these truths and these emotions, and on this depends the moral harmony of the mind. The preservation of this harmony, again, is intimately connected with a mental process which every man feels to be voluntary,—or in his power to perform, if he wills. It consists in a careful direction of the mind to such truths, so as to enable them to act as moral causes in the mental economy:—by the established order of moral sequences, the emotions naturally follow:—these are then to be cherished with satisfaction and reverence; and a corresponding influence upon the character and conduct is the farther consequence. But the first step in this important process may be neglected;—the mind may not be directed with due care to the truths which thus claim its highest regard,—and the natural result is a corresponding deficiency in the emotions and conduct which ought to flow from them. This will be the case in a still higher degree, if there has been formed any actual derangement of the moral condition,—if deeds have been committed, or even desires cherished, and mental habits acquired, by which the indications of conscience have been violated. The moral harmony of the mind is then lost, and, however slight may be the first impression, a morbid influence has begun to operate in the mental economy, which tends gradually to gain strength, until it becomes a ruling principle in the whole character. The truths connected with the divine perfections are now neither invited nor cherished, but are felt to be intruders which disturb the mental tranquillity. The attention ceases to be directed to them, and the corresponding emotions vanish from the mind. Such appears to be the moral history of those, who, in the striking language of the sacred writings, "do not like to retain God in their knowledge."

When the harmony of the mind has been impaired to this extent, another mental condition arises, according to the wondrous system of moral sequences. This consists in a distortion of the understanding itself, regarding the first great principles of moral truth. For, a fearless contemplation of the truth, respecting the divine perfections, having become inconsistent with the moral condition of the mind, there next arises a desire to discover a view of them more in accordance with its own feelings. This is followed, in due course, by a corresponding train of its own speculations; and these, by a mind so prepared, are received as truth. The inventions of the mind itself thus become the regulating principles of its emotions, and this mental process, advancing from step to step, terminates in moral degradation and anarchy.

Nothing can be more striking than the manner in which these great principles of ethical science are laid down in the sacred writings;—"the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools; and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things."—"And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient." The various steps, in this course of moral degradation, are here represented as a judicial infliction by the Deity. But this solemn view of the subject is in no degree inconsistent with the principle, that it takes place according to a chain of sequences existing in the mind itself. For the Almighty One, who is said to inflict as a judgment this state of moral ruin, is the same who established it as the uniform result of a process in the mental economy, to be traced in the history of every man who has followed the downward course which led him astray from virtue.

To the principles which have now been stated, we are also to refer a point in the philosophy of human nature which presents a subject of most interesting reflection. I allude to the fact, that the great truths of religious belief are so often rejected, by men who have acquired a reputation for exalted powers of understanding in other departments of intellectual inquiry. The fact is one of intense interest; and we can scarcely wonder that superficial observers should have deduced from it an impression, that it implies something defective in the evidence by which these truths are proposed to our reception. But the conclusion is entirely unwarranted, and the important principle cannot be too often repeated, that the attainment of truth in moral inquiries is essentially connected with the moral condition of the inquirer. On this depends the anxious care with which he has directed his mind to the high pursuit, under a deep and solemn feeling of its supreme importance. On this depends the sincere and humble and candid love of truth with which he has conducted it, apart alike from prejudice and frivolity. For without these essential elements of character, the most exalted intellect may fail of reaching the truth,—the most acute understanding may only wander into delusion and falsehood.

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Before concluding this subject, there is another point which deserves to be alluded to;—namely, the influence produced upon all our moral judgments and decisions by Attention. This important process of the mind we have had occasion to mention in various parts of our inquiry. It consists, as we have seen, in directing the thoughts, calmly and deliberately, to all the facts and considerations by which we ought to be influenced in the particular case which is under our view; and it should be accompanied by an anxious and sincere desire to be guided, both in our opinions and conduct, by the true and relative tendency of each of them. It is a voluntary process of the mind which every man has the power to perform; and on the degree in which it is habitually exercised, depend some of the great differences between one man and another in their moral condition. We have repeatedly had occasion to mention that morbid state of the mind, in which moral causes seem to have lost their proper influence, both on the volitions of the will, and even on the conclusions of the judgment:—But it is a truth which cannot be too often referred to, how much this condition is influenced by the mental process which we are now considering. It originates, indeed, in some degree of that distortion of moral feeling, in consequence of which the inclinations wander from the strict path of rectitude;—but the primary effect of this loss of mental harmony, and that by which it is perpetuated, appears to be chiefly a habitual misdirection of the attention,—or a total want of consideration of the truths and motives, by which the moral judgments and decisions ought to be influenced. Apart from this condition of the mind, indeed, there is reason to believe, that the actual differences in moral judgment are in different men less than we are apt to imagine. "Let any honest man," says Butler, "before he engages in any course of action, ask himself,—is this I am going to do right, or is it wrong,—is it good, or is it evil:—I do not in the least doubt but that these questions would be answered agreeably to truth and virtue, by almost any fair man in almost any circumstances." It is in a great measure from the want of this simple exercise of attention, or of what in common language we call calm reflection, that men are led away, by passion, prejudice, and distorted moral habits, into courses of action which their own sober judgment would condemn;—and when a man, who has thus departed from rectitude, begins to retrace his way, the first great point is that where he pauses in his downward career, and seriously proposes to himself the question, whether the course he has followed be worthy of a moral being. I allude not here to the means by which a man is led to take this momentous step in his moral history, but only to the mental process of which it consists. It is primarily nothing more than an exercise of attention, calmly and deliberately directed to the truths and considerations by which his moral decisions ought to be influenced; but, when a man has once been brought into this attitude of deep and serious thought, conscience comes to bear its part in the solemn process; and the inquirer is likely to arrive at just conclusions on those great questions of which he feels the importance to his moral condition.

It is on the principles now referred to, that, according to a doctrine which has been often and keenly controverted, we hold a man to be responsible for his belief. The state of mind which constitutes belief is, indeed, one over which the will has no direct power. But belief depends upon evidence;—the result of even the best evidence is entirely dependant on attention;—and attention is a voluntary intellectual state over which we have a direct and absolute control. As it is, therefore, by prolonged and continued attention that evidence produces belief, a man may incur the deepest guilt by his disbelief of truths which he has failed to examine with the care which is due to them. This exercise is entirely under the control of the will; but the will to exercise it respecting moral truth is closely connected with the love of that truth; and this is intimately dependent on the state of moral feeling of the mind. It is thus that a man's moral condition influences the conclusions of his judgment;—and it is thus, that on the great questions of moral truth, there may be guilt attached to a process of the understanding, while there is both guilt and moral degradation in that mental condition from which it springs.

A similar relation exists, as was formerly stated, between all our moral emotions, and processes which are felt to be entirely voluntary. These emotions are, properly speaking, not the objects of volition, nor do they arise directly at our bidding; but, according to the constitution of the mind, they are the natural or established result of certain intellectual processes, and, in some sense, even of bodily action, both of which are entirely voluntary. The emotions of compassion and benevolence, for example, are the natural result of the sight or even the description of scenes of distress; and the primary steps in this process are entirely within our power to perform, if we will. We can visit the afflicted family, listen to their tale of distress, and consider their circumstances,—that is, give our attention to them in such a manner that the natural and proper effect may be produced upon our moral feelings. We can give the same kind of attention, and with a similar result, to a case which is only described to us by another; or we may neglect all this mental process. Engrossed with the business or the frivolities of life, we may keep ourselves at a distance from the persons and the scenes that might operate in this manner on our moral feelings;—we may refuse to listen to the tale of sorrow, or, if compelled to hear it, we may give it little attention and no consideration. The moral feeling does not follow, and this course, after a certain repetition, terminates in confirmed and barren selfishness. We see many instances in which we distinctly recognise this course of mental or moral sequence. If, in regard to a particular case of distress, for example, we have come to a deliberate conviction of the worthlessness of the individual, and have determined to withhold our aid, we refuse to see him, and we decline hearing from another any thing more of his history;—we say, we have made up our mind not to allow our compassion to be any more worked upon in his favour. We thus recognise the natural relation between the sight or even the description of distress, and the production of certain feelings in ourselves:—and we recognise also the legitimate means for preventing this influence in certain cases, in which, by a deliberate act of judgment, we have determined against having these feelings excited. If, notwithstanding this determination, we happen to be brought within the influence of the distress which we wished to avoid, we consider this as a sufficient ground for acting, in the instance, against our sober judgment. We had determined against it, we say, but what can you do when you see people starving. We thus recognise as legitimate that process by which, in certain cases, we keep ourselves beyond this influence; but we attach no feeling of approbation to the moral condition of him who, being subjected to the influence, can resist it; that is, who can really come into contact with distress, and shut his heart against it. And even with regard to the course which we here recognise as legitimate, much caution is required, before we allow a process of the judgment to interfere with the natural and healthy course of the moral feelings. If the interference arises, not from a sound process of the understanding, but from a course in which selfishness bears a considerable part, an injurious influence upon the moral condition of the mind is the necessary consequence. We thus perceive that, in the chain of sequences relating to the benevolent feelings, there are three distinct steps,—two of which are entirely under the control of the will. A man has it entirely in his power to place himself in contact with objects of distress, and to follow out the call of duty in considering their circumstances, and entering into their feelings. The natural result is a train of emotions which arise in his own mind, prompting him to a particular line of conduct. To act upon these emotions is again under the power of his will; and if the whole of this chain of sequences be duly followed, the result is a sound condition of this part of the moral economy. If either of the voluntary steps be neglected or violated, the mental harmony is lost, and a habit is formed of unfeeling selfishness.

The principle, which has thus been illustrated by the benevolent affections, is equally true of our other moral emotions. These emotions are closely connected with certain truths, which are calculated to give use to them, according to the constitution of our moral economy. Now, the careful acquisition of the knowledge of these truths, and a serious direction of the attention to their tendencies, are intellectual processes which are as much under the power of our will, as are the acts of visiting and giving attention to scenes of distress; and the due cultivation of them involves an equal degree of moral responsibility. This again is connected with the remarkable power which we possess over the succession of our thoughts. We can direct the mind into a particular train; we can continue it and dwell upon it with calm and deliberate attention, so that the truths, which it brings before us, may produce their natural and proper effect on our moral feelings. The emotions thus excited lead to a certain line of conduct, which also is voluntary; and on the due cultivation of this chain of sequences depends a healthy moral condition. But we may neglect those parts of the sequence which are under the control of our will. We may abstain from directing our attention to such truths; we may view them in a slight, frivolous, or distorted manner, or we may dismiss them altogether; and if any degree of the emotions should be excited, we may make no effort towards the cultivation of the conduct to which they would lead us. The due cultivation of this power over the succession of our thoughts, is that which constitutes one of the great differences between one man and another, both as intellectual and moral beings;—and, though correct moral emotions are not properly the objects of volition, it is thus that a man may incur the deepest moral guilt in the want of them.

The subject also leads to conclusions of the greatest importance respecting the principles on which we ought to conduct religious instruction, particularly in regard to the cultivation of religious emotions. It reminds us of the important law of our nature, that all true cultivation of religious emotion must be founded upon a sound culture of the understanding in the knowledge of religious truth, and a careful direction of the powers of reasoning and judging, both to its evidences and its tendencies. All impulse that does not arise in this manner can be nothing more than an artificial excitement of feeling, widely different from the emotion of a regulated mind. Such a system generates wild enthusiasm;—and the principle is of peculiar and essential importance in the education of the young. In then susceptible minds religious emotion is easily produced, and, by a particular management, may be fostered for a time. But those who have been trained in this manner are little qualified to meet the collisions of active life, and we need not wonder if they should make shipwreck of a faith which has not been founded in knowledge.

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Before leaving the subject of the Moral Principle, there are two points closely connected with it which remain to be noticed. The one relates to the origin and immutability of moral distinctions, and, in connexion with this, a class of speculations which hold a conspicuous place in the history of Ethical science, under the name of Theories of Morals. The other refers to a certain harmony or principle of arrangement, which the different moral feelings ought to preserve towards each other in a well-regulated mind.


In treating of the moral powers, I have considered various feelings as distinct parts of our constitution, each intended to answer a specific purpose in the present scene of moral discipline. I am aware of an objection that may be urged against this mode of viewing the subject,—namely, that it is an unnecessary multiplication of original principles. I am not inclined to dispute respecting the term, original principles. I only contend for the fact, that there are certain feelings or propensities which are found to operate in the whole of mankind; and, with regard to these, I consider our object to be, simply to view man as he is. In his physical relations, we find him endowed with a variety of senses, and a great variety of bodily functions,—each adapted to its proper purpose, and all distinct from each other; and the physiologist is content to view them simply as they are. Were he to exercise his ingenuity upon them, he might contend with much plausibility, that it is highly incorrect to speak of five distinct and separate senses;—for that they are all merely modifications of sensation, differing only in the various kinds of the external impression. Thus, what is vulgarly called sight is the simple sensation of light,—and hearing is merely the sensation of sound. This would be all very true,—but it does not appear to elucidate the subject; nor, by any ingenuity of such speculation, could we be enabled to know more concerning these senses than when we called them sight and hearing. In the same manner it would appear, that the course of inquiry, respecting our moral feelings, is simply to observe what these feelings really are, and what are their obvious tendencies. When we have done so on adequate foundation, I conceive we have every reason for considering them as principles implanted in us by the Creator, for guidance in our present relations; and, like the functions of our bodies, so the powers and feelings of our minds shew a wonderful adaptation and design, worthy of their Omnipotent Cause. But we can know nothing of them beyond the facts,—and nothing is to be gained by any attempt, however ingenious, to simplify or explain them. We have formerly had occasion to allude to various speculations of a similar character, respecting the powers of perception and simple intellect,—all of which have now given way before the general admission of the truth, that, on the questions to which they refer, no human sagacity can carry us one step beyond the simple knowledge of the facts.

It will probably be admitted, that there have been many similar unprofitable speculations in the philosophy of the moral feelings; and that these speculations, instead of throwing any light upon the subject, have tended rather to withdraw the attention of inquirers from the questions of deep and serious importance connected with the investigation. Among these, perhaps, we may reckon some of the doctrines which hold a prominent place in the history of this branch of science,—under the name of Theories of Morals. These doctrines agree in admitting the fact, that there are among mankind certain notions respecting right and wrong,—moral and immoral actions; and they then profess to account for these impressions,—or to explain how men come to think one action right and another wrong. A brief view of these theories may properly belong to an outline of this department of science.

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In contemplating the conduct of men as placed in certain relations towards each other, we perceive some actions which we pronounce to be right, and others which we pronounce to be wrong. In forming our opinion of them in this manner, we refer to the intentions of the actor, and, if we are satisfied that he really intended what we see to be the effect or the tendency of his conduct, or even that he purposed something which he was prevented from accomplishing, we view him with feelings of moral approbation or disapprobation,—or, in other words, apply to him the award of praise or blame. Such is our simple idea of virtue or vice, as applied either to the act or the agent. We have a conviction that there is a line of conduct to which ourselves and others are bound by a certain kind of obligation;—a departure from this constitutes moral demerit or vice;—a correct observance of it constitutes virtue.

This appears to be our primary impression of vice and virtue. The next question is, what is the origin of the impression, or on what ground is it that we conclude certain actions to be right and others wrong. Is it merely from a view of their consequences to ourselves or others; or do we proceed upon an absolute conviction of certain conduct being right, and certain other wrong, without carrying the mind farther than the simple act, or the simple intention of the actor,—without any consideration of the effects or the tendencies of the action. This is the question which has been so keenly agitated in the speculations of Ethical science, namely, respecting the origin and nature of moral distinctions. On the one hand, it is contended, that these moral impressions are in themselves immutable, and that an absolute conviction of their immutability is fixed upon us in that part of our constitution which we call Conscience, in other words, there is a certain conduct to which we are bound by a feeling of obligation, apart from all other considerations whatever, and we have an impression that a departure from this in ourselves or others constitutes vice. On the other hand, it is maintained, that these distinctions are entirely arbitrary, or arise out of circumstances, so that what is vice in one case may be virtue in another. Those who have adopted the latter hypothesis have next to explain, what the circumstances are which give rise, in this manner, to our impressions of vice and virtue, moral approbation or disapprobation. The various modes of explaining this impression have led to the Theories of Morals.

The system of Mandeville ascribes our impressions of moral rectitude entirely to the enactments of legislators. Man, he says, naturally seeks only his own gratification, without any regard to the happiness of other men. But legislators found that it would be necessary to induce him, in some way, to surrender a position of his personal gratification for the good of others, and so to promote the peace and harmony of society. To accomplish this with such a selfish being, it was necessary to give him some equivalent for the sacrifice he thus made; and the principle of his nature which they fixed upon, for this purpose, was his love of praise. They made certain laws for the general good, and then flattered mankind into the belief that it was praiseworthy to observe them, and noble to sacrifice a certain degree of their own gratification for the good of others. What we call virtue thus resolves itself into the love of praise. In regard to such a system as this, it has been thought sufficient to point out the distinction between the immutable principles of morality and those arrangements which are dependent upon mere enactment. Such are many of the regulations and restrictions of commerce. They are intended for the public good, and, while they are in force, it is the duty of every good citizen to obey them. A change of the law, however, changes their character, for they possess in themselves none of the qualities of merit or demerit. But no laws can alter, and no statutes modify, those great principles of moral conduct which are graved indelibly on the conscience of all classes of men. Kings, it has been said, may make laws, but cannot create a virtue.

By another modification of this system, our impressions of virtue and vice are said to be derived entirely from mutual compact. Men, finding that there was a certain course of action which would contribute to their mutual advantage, and vice versa, entered into an agreement to observe certain conduct, and abstain from certain other. The violation of this compact constituted vice, the observance of it virtue.

By a theory, supported by some eminent men, as Clark and Wollaston, virtue was considered to depend on a conformity of the conduct to a certain sense of the fitness of things,—or the truth of things. The meaning of this, it must be confessed, is rather obscure. It however evidently refers the essence of virtue to a relation perceived by a process of reason; and therefore may be held as at variance with the belief of the impression being universal.

According to the Theory of Utility, as warmly supported by Mr. Hume, we estimate the virtue of an action and an agent entirely by their usefulness. He seems to refer all our mental impressions to two principles, reason and taste. Reason gives us simply the knowledge of truth or falsehood, and is no motive of action. Taste gives an impression of pleasure or pain,—so constitutes happiness or misery, and becomes a motive of action. To this he refers our impressions of beauty and deformity, vice and virtue. He has, accordingly, distinctly asserted that the words right and wrong signify nothing more than sweet or sour, pleasant or painful, being only effects upon the mind of the spectator produced by the contemplation of certain conduct,—and this, as we have already seen, resolves itself into the impression of its usefulness. An obvious objection to the system of utility was, that it might be applied to the effects of inanimate matter as correctly as to the deeds of a voluntary agent. A printing-press or a steam-engine might be as meritorious as a man of extensive virtue. To obviate this, Mr. Hume was driven to a distinction, which in fact amounted to giving up the doctrine, namely, that the sense of utility must be combined with a feeling of approbation. This leads us back to the previous question, on what this feeling of approbation is founded, and at once recognises a principle, distinct from the mere perception of utility. Virtuous conduct may indeed always contribute to general utility, or general happiness, but this is an effect only, not the cause or the principle which constitutes it virtuous. This important distinction has been well stated by Professor Mills of Oxford. He defines morality to be,—"an obedience to the law and constitution of man's nature, assigned him by the Deity in conformity to his own essential and unchangeable attributes, the effect of which is the general happiness of his creatures."[2]—We may safely assert, that whatever is right is also expedient for man; but the converse by no means follows,—that what is expedient, that is what mankind think would be expedient, comes to be right.

[Footnote 2: Lecture on the Theory of Moral Obligation. Oxford, 1830.]

We now come to the Selfish System of morals, according to which the fundamental principle of the conduct of mankind is a desire to promote their own gratification or interest. This theory has appeared in various forms, from a very early period in the history of Ethical science; but the most remarkable promoter of it in more modern times was Mr. Hobbes. According to him, man is influenced entirely by what seems calculated, more immediately, or more remotely, to promote his own interest; whatever does so, he considers as right,—the opposite as wrong. He is driven to society by necessity, and then, whatever promotes the general good, he considers as ultimately calculated to promote his own. This system is founded upon a fallacy, similar to that referred to under the former head. Virtuous conduct does impart gratification, and that of the highest kind; and, in the strictest sense of the word, it promotes the true interest of the agent, but this tendency is the effect, not the cause; and never can be considered as the principle which imparts to conduct its character of virtue; nor do we perform it merely because it affords us gratification, or promotes our interest. The hypothesis, indeed, may be considered as distinctly contradicted by facts,—for, even in our own experience, it is clear, that the pleasure attending an act of generosity or virtue in ourselves, as well as our approbation of it in others, is diminished or destroyed by the impression that there was a selfish purpose to answer by it.

There is a modification of the selfish system which attempts to get rid of its more offensive aspect by a singular and circuitous chain of moral emotions. We have experienced, it is said, that a certain attention to the comfort or advantage of others contributes to our own. A kind of habit is thus formed, by which we come at last to seek the happiness of others for their own sake;—so that, by this process, actions, which at first were considered only as inexpedient, from being opposed to self-love, at length and insensibly come to be considered as immoral. This can be considered as nothing more than an ingenious play upon words, and deserves only to be mentioned as a historical fact, in a view of those speculations by which this important subject has been obscured and bewildered.

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Another modification of the theories of morals remains to be mentioned;—namely, that of the distinguished Paley. This eminent writer is decidedly opposed to the doctrine of a moral sense or moral principle; but the system which he proposes to substitute in its place must be acknowledged to be liable to considerable objections. He commences with the proposition that virtue is doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness. The good of mankind, therefore, is the subject,—the will of God, the rule,—and everlasting happiness, the motive of human virtue. The will of God, he subsequently goes on to shew, is made known to us, partly by revelation, and partly by what we discover of his designs and dispositions from his works, or, as we usually call it, the light of nature. From this last source he thinks it is clearly to be inferred, that God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures; consequently, actions which promote that will and wish must be agreeable to him, and the contrary. The method of ascertaining the will of God concerning any action, by the light of nature, therefore, is to inquire into the tendency of the action to promote or diminish general happiness. Proceeding on those grounds, he then arrives at the conclusion, that whatever is expedient is right; and that it is the utility of any moral rule alone, which constitutes the obligation of it. In his further elucidation of this theory, Dr. Paley admits, that an action may be useful, in an individual case, which is not right. To constitute it right, it is necessary that it shall be "expedient upon the whole,—at the long run, in all its effects, collateral and remote, as well as those which are immediate and direct."

In presuming to offer a criticism upon Paley, I readily concede to the defenders of his system, that it is not to be classed with the utilitarianism of Hume and Godwin; and that it is not, correctly speaking, chargeable with selfishness, in holding out the happiness of a future state as a motive to virtue. The latter part of his system is clearly countenanced by the sacred writings; and it does appear to be a stretch of language, to apply the term selfishness to the longing which the sincere Christian feels for the full enjoyment of God. In regard to the former part of his doctrine, again, it appears that Paley meant to propose the will of God as the rule or obligation of morals, and utility only as a criterion or guide; though it must be confessed that his language is liable to much misconstruction, and is somewhat at variance with itself. The real objection to the doctrine of Paley, I apprehend, lies in his unqualified rejection of the supreme authority of conscience, and in the mental operation which he substitutes in its place, namely, a circuitous process of reasoning, in each individual, respecting the entire and ultimate expediency of actions. There are two considerations which appear to present serious objections to this part of the system as a doctrine to be applied to practical purposes. (1.) If we suppose a man deliberating respecting an action, which he perceives would be eminently expedient and useful in an individual case, and which he feels to be highly desirable in its immediate reference to that case,—we may naturally ask, whether he is in a likely condition to find his way to a sound conclusion respecting the consequences of the action "upon the whole, at the long run, in all its consequences, remote and collateral."—It may certainly be doubted whether, in any case, there is not great danger of differences of opinion arising, respecting this extended and ultimate expediency:—and it must be admitted that, in the man now referred to, the very circumstances of his perception of great and immediate utility, and the state of desire connected with it, would constitute a moral condition which might interfere, in a very material degree, with his calculation as to its ultimate expediency. Upon whatever system we proceed, I fear it must be conceded as a fact, that there is a singular propensity in the mass of mankind to consider their own pains and pleasures before those of other men; and that this propensity must interfere with the cool course of moral calculation which the system of utility must consider as indispensable. (2.) Independently of this consideration, we may be allowed to doubt, whether any human being can arrive at such an extensive knowledge, as this theory seems to render necessary, of all the consequences of an action, remote and collateral. This would appear to constitute a kind and degree of knowledge to be found only in the Omniscience of the Deity. It is, in fact, by giving its full weight to this difficulty, that the doctrine of utility has been employed by some foreign writers, in their attempts to undermine the whole foundation of morals. "The goodness of actions," says Beausobre, in his Pyrrhonisme Raisonable, "depends upon their consequences, which man cannot foresee, nor accurately ascertain." What harmony, indeed, or what consistency of moral sentiment can we expect from a system, by which man himself is made the judge of the code of morals to which he is to be subject, and by which his decisions, on a question so momentous, are made to lest on those remote consequences of actions which he must feel to be beyond the reach of his limited faculties.

If these observations be well-founded, I think we cannot hesitate to maintain, that, on such a nice calculation of consequences, it is impossible to found a rule of morals in any degree adapted to the necessities of man. The same objection applies to every doctrine, which does not recognise the supreme authority of conscience as an original part of our moral constitution, warning us of certain conduct as immutably right, and certain other conduct as immutably wrong, without any regard either to our own advantage, or to our judgment of the tendency of the deeds. Whenever we depart from this great principle, we reduce every moral decision to what must primarily be a process of reasoning, and in which, from the intricate calculation of consequences which necessarily arises, there can scarcely fail to be differences of opinion respecting the tendency of actions, instead of that absolute conviction which the deep importance of the subject renders indispensable. It may, farther, be confidently stated, as a matter of fact, that a conscientious man, in considering an action which involves a point of moral duty, does not enter upon any such calculation of its consequences. He simply asks himself,—is it right?—and so decides, according to an impulse within, which he feels to be a part of his moral constitution, susceptible of no explanation, and not admitting of being referred to any other principle. I confess, indeed, that I cannot perceive, how the doctrine of utility, in any of its forms, can be reconciled with the principle of moral responsibility. For what we commonly call vice and virtue, must resolve themselves merely into differences of opinion respecting what is most expedient in all its consequences, remote and collateral. We have already alluded to the considerations which must make this decision one of extreme difficulty;—and how can we ascribe moral guilt to that, which, though in vulgar language we may call it vice, must very often be nothing more than an error in judgment respecting this ultimate good.

In regard to the whole of this important subject, I cannot see the necessity for the circuitous mental operations which have been made to apply to it; nor can I enter into the repugnance, shewn by various classes of moralists, against the belief of a process or a principle in our constitution, given us for a guide in our moral relations. It is unnecessary to dispute about its name, or even about its origin;—for the former is of no importance, and of the latter we know nothing. The question relates simply to its existence as a mental exercise distinct from any process of reasoning, and the only criterion, to which the question can be referred, is an appeal to the moral feelings of every individual. Is there not a mental movement or feeling, call it what we may, by which we have a perception of actions as just or unjust, right or wrong; and by which we experience shame or remorse respecting our own conduct in particular instances, and indignation against the conduct of others. Every one is conscious of such a mental exercise, and there are two considerations which, I think, may be referred to as moral facts, shewing a clear and decided difference between it and any simple process of reasoning. (1.) I would ask whether, in deciding on his conduct, every man is not conscious of two classes of actions, in regard to which the processes of his mind differ widely from each other. In deciding respecting actions of the one class, he carefully and anxiously deliberates on their tendencies,—that is, their utility towards himself, or to others whose welfare he has in view; and he reflects on what was the result of his conduct in similar cases, on former occasions. In deciding respecting actions of the other class, he enters into no such calculations;—he feels an immediate impression, that a certain course is right, and a certain other wrong, without looking a single step into their tendencies. Every one is conscious of this difference, between acting from a perception of utility and from a feeling of obligation or a sense of duty; and it would be difficult to prove that any perception of utility alone ever amounts to a sense of obligation. (2.) In that class of actions to which is properly applied a calculation of utility, we see the most remarkable differences in judgment manifested by men, whom we regard as holding a high place in respect both of integrity and talent. Let us take for example the measures of political economy. A conscientious statesman feels that he is bound to pursue measures calculated to promote the good of his country; but the individual measures are often questions of expediency or utility. And what an endless diversity of judgment do we observe respecting them; and how often do we find measures proposed by able men, as calculated to produce important public benefit, which others, of no inferior name, with equal confidence, condemn as frivolous, or even dangerous. If there can be such a difference of opinion respecting one class of actions, we cannot avoid the impression that there may be similar differences respecting others, whenever the decision is left to a simple process of reason; and we cannot but feel some misgivings, as to what the state of human society would be, if men, in their moral decisions were kept together by no other ties than the speculations of each individual respecting general utility. In any such process, we can see no provision for that uniformity of feeling required for the class of actions in which are concerned our moral decisions;—and I can see nothing unphilosophical in the belief, that the Creator has provided, in reference to these, a part or a process in our moral constitution, which is incapable of analysis,—but which proves, as Butler has termed it, "a rule of right within, to every man who honestly attends to it."

To this view of the subject I would add only one consideration, which alone appears to present an insurmountable objection to the doctrine of utility in all its modifications; namely, that any correct ideas of the utility of an action can be derived only from experience. The study of the principles of morality, therefore, would consist of a series of observations or experiments, by which valid conclusions might be ascertained; and an individual, entering upon the momentous question, would require either to trust to the conclusions of others, or to make the observations and experiments for himself. In the former case, he could not fail to perceive the precarious nature of the basis on which he was receiving principles of such weighty importance. He could not fail to remark, that, in other sciences, unsound and premature deductions had been brought forward, even on high authority, and allowed to usurp the place of truth. How is he to be satisfied, that, in this highest of all inquiries, similar errors had not been committed. To avoid such uncertainty, he may resolve to make the observations or experiments for himself, and to trust only to his own conclusions. But here he is met by another difficulty of appalling magnitude. For a lifetime may not suffice to bring the experiments to a close; and, during this, he must remain in the same uncertainty on the great principles of morals, as respecting the periods of a comet, which, having been seen for a day, darts off into its eccentric orbit, and may not return for a century. How can it accord with our convictions of the wisdom of Him who made us, that he should have made us thus.

The foundation of all these Theories of Morals, then, seems to be the impression, that there is nothing right or wrong, just or unjust in itself; but that our ideas of right and wrong, justice and injustice, arise either from actual law or mutual compact, or from our view of the tendencies of actions. Another modification of these theories, liable, as it is sometimes stated, to similar objection, ascribes the origin of right and wrong directly to the will of the Deity, and holds that there is nothing wrong which might not have been right, if he had so ordained it.

By the immutability of moral distinctions, as opposed to these theories, we mean,—that there are certain actions which are immutably right, and which we are bound in duty to perform, and certain actions which are immutably wrong, apart from any other consideration whatever;—and that an absolute conviction of this is fixed upon us, in the moral principle or conscience, independently of knowledge derived from any other source respecting the will or laws of the Almighty. This important distinction has been sometimes not unaptly expressed by saying of such actions,—not that they are right because the Deity has commanded them,—but that he has commanded them because they are right. By this system, therefore, which refers our moral impressions to the supreme authority of conscience, a principle is disclosed, which, independently even of revelation, not only establishes an absolute conviction of the laws of moral rectitude, but leads us to the impression of moral responsibility and a moral Governor; and as immediately flowing from this, a state of future retribution. We have already shewn this to accord with the declarations of the sacred writings, and it is evidently the only system on which we can account for that uniformity of moral sentiment which is absolutely required for the harmonies of society. For it is, in fact, on a conviction of this feeling in ourselves, and of the existence of a similar and universal principle in others, that is founded all the mutual confidence which keeps mankind together. It is this reciprocity of moral feeling that proves a constant check upon the conduct of men in the daily transactions of life; but, to answer this purpose, there is evidently required an impression of its uniformity,—or a conviction that the actions, which we disapprove in others will be condemned in us by the unanimous decision of other men. It is equally clear that we have no such impression of a uniformity of sentiment on any other subject, except on those referable to the class of first truths; and this immediately indicates a marked distinction between our moral impressions, and any of those conclusions at which we arrive by a process of the understanding. It is clear, also, that this uniformity can arise from no system, which either refers us directly to the will of God, or is liable to be affected by the differences which may exist in the judgment, the moral taste, the personal feelings, or the interests of different individuals. It must be, in itself, fixed and immutable, conveying an absolute conviction which admits of no doubt and no difference of opinion. Such is the great principle of conscience. However its warnings may be neglected, and its influence obscured by passion and moral degradation, it still asserts its claim to govern the whole man. "Had it strength," says Butler, "as it had right; had it power, as it had manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world."

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In opposition to this belief of a uniformity of moral feeling, much importance has been attached to the practices of certain ancient and some barbarous nations, as the encouragement of theft in Sparta, and the exposure of the aged among certain tribes in India. Such instances prove no diversity of moral feeling; but a difference of practice, arising from certain specialities, real or supposed, by which, in the particular cases, the influence of the primary moral feeling is, for the time, set aside. It is of no importance to the argument, whether the disturbing principle thus operating be the result of an absurd local policy or a barbarous superstition. It is enough that we see a principle, which, in point of fact, does thus operate, suspending, in the particular instances, the primary moral impression. It was not that, in Sparta, there was any absence of the usual moral feeling in regard to theft in the abstract,—but that the cultivation of habits of activity and enterprise, which arose from the practice, was considered as a national object of the highest importance, in a small and warlike state, surrounded by powerful enemies. It is precisely in the same manner, that, in individual conduct, a man may be misled by passion or by interest to do things which his sober judgment condemns. In doing so, there is no want of the ordinary moral feeling which influences other men; but he has brought himself to violate this feeling, for certain purposes which he finds to be highly desirable; and then, probably, seeks to defend his conduct to the satisfaction of his own mind, and of the minds of others. He has a distinct perception of what is right, while he does what is wrong. There are numerous facts which illustrate the same principle, and shew the recognition of correct moral feelings, even in those who habitually and daringly violate them;—as the laws of honour and honesty which robbers observe towards each other,—and the remarkable fidelity of smugglers towards their associates. In some of the tribes in the South Seas, also, most remarkable for their dishonesty, it was found, that while they encouraged each other in pillaging strangers, theft was most severely punished among themselves. Need I farther refer, on this subject, to the line of argument adopted in the great question of slavery. It is directed to the palliating circumstances in the actual state of slavery, not to a broad defence of slavery itself. Its object is to shew, that slavery, under all its present circumstances, may be reconciled with the principles of humanity and justice:—no attempt is ever made to prove, that it is consistent with these principles to tear a human being from his country and his kindred, and make him a slave.[3]

[Footnote 3: See this subject eloquently argued in Dr. Chalmers' Bridgewater Treatise.]

On this subject we are sometimes triumphantly asked, where is the conscience of the Inquisitor,—as if the moral condition of such an individual incontestably proved, that there can be no such power as we consider conscience to be. But I think it cannot be doubted, that, as in the more common cases which have been mentioned, the conscience of the Inquisitor comes gradually to be accommodated to the circumstances in which he has voluntarily placed himself. This remarkable moral process has been repeatedly referred to. It may originate in various causes. It may arise from passion, or an ill-regulated state of the desires or affections of the mind; it may arise from motives of interest, leading a man by small and gradual steps into actions which his sober judgment condemns; or false opinions, however received, may be allowed to fasten on the mind, until, from want of candid examination, they come to be invested with the authority of truth. In the moral process which follows, each single step is slight, and its influence almost imperceptible; but this influence is perpetuated, and gains strength in each succeeding step, until the result is a total derangement of the moral harmony of the mind.

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It remains only that we briefly notice the system of Dr. Adam Smith, commonly called the theory of Sympathy. According to this ingenious writer, it is required for our moral sentiments respecting an action, that we enter into the feelings both of the agent, and of him to whom the action relates. If we sympathize with the feelings and intentions of the agent, we approve of his conduct as right,—if not, we consider it as wrong. If, in the individual to whom the action refers, we sympathize with a feeling of gratitude, we regard the agent as worthy of praise,—if with a feeling of resentment, the contrary. We thus observe our feelings respecting the conduct of others, in cases in which we are not personally concerned,—then apply these rules to ourselves, and thus judge of our own conduct. This very obvious statement, however, of what every man feels, does not supply the place of a fundamental rule of right and wrong; and indeed Dr. Smith does not appear to contend that it does so. It applies only to the application of a principle, not to the origin of it. Our sympathy can never be supposed to constitute an action right or wrong; but it enables us to apply to individual cases a principle of right and wrong derived from another source;—and to clear our judgment in doing so, from the blinding influence of those selfish feelings by which we are so apt to be misled when we apply it directly to ourselves. In estimating our own conduct, we then apply to it those conclusions which we have made with regard to the conduct of others,—or we imagine others applying the same process in regard to us, and consider how our conduct would appeal to an impartial observer.

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This, however, is a most important principle in regard to our moral decisions,—namely, the process by which we view an action, or a course of conduct, in another, and then apply the decision to ourselves. When the power of moral judgment is obscured or deadened in regard to our own conduct, by self-love or deranged moral habits, all the correctness of judgment is often preserved respecting the actions of others. It is thus that men are led on by interest or passion into courses of action, which, if viewed calmly and dispassionately, they would not deliberately defend even in themselves, and which, when viewed in others, they promptly condemn. This principle is beautifully illustrated in the sacred writings, when the prophet went to the king of Israel, and laid before him the hypothetical case of a rich man, who had committed an act of gross and unfeeling injustice against a poor neighbour. The monarch was instantly roused to indignation, and pronounced a sentence of severe but righteous vengeance against the oppressor,—when the prophet turned upon him with the solemn denunciation, "Thou art the man." His moral feeling in regard to his own conduct was dead; but his power of correct moral decision when applied to another was undiminished.

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In regard to the whole of this subject, an important distinction is to be made between the fundamental principle, from which actions derive their character of right and wrong,—and the application of reason in judging of their tendencies. Before concluding this part of the subject, therefore, we have to add a very few observations on the influence exerted on our moral decisions by reason,—always however in subserviency to the great principle of conscience. The office of reason appears to be, in the first place, to judge of the expediency, propriety, and consequences of actions, which do not involve any feeling of moral duty. In regard to the affections, again, a process of reason is often necessary, not only respecting the best mode of exercising them, but also, in many cases, in deciding whether we shall exercise them at all. Thus, we may feel compassion in a particular instance, but perceive the individual to be so unworthy, that what we could do would be of no benefit to him. In such a case we may feel it to be a matter not only of prudence, but of duty, to resist the affection, and to reserve the aid we have to bestow for persons more deserving.

In cases in which an impression of moral duty is concerned, an exercise of reason is still in many instances, necessary, for enabling us to adapt our means to the end which we desire to accomplish. We may feel an anxious wish to promote the interest or relieve the distress of another, or to perform some high and important duty,—but call reason to our aid respecting the most effectual and the most judicious means of doing so. Conscience, in such cases, produces the intention,—reason suggests the means;—and it is familiar to every one that these do not always harmonize. Thus a man may be sound in his intentions, who errs in judgment respecting the means for carrying them into effect. In such cases, we attach our feeling of moral approbation to the intention only,—we say the man meant well, but erred in judgment;—and to this error we affix no feeling of moral disapprobation,—unless, perhaps, in some cases, we may blame him for acting precipitately on his own judgment, instead of taking the advice of those qualified to direct him. We expect such a man to acquire wisdom from experience, by observing the deficiency of his judgment in reference to his intentions; and, in future instances, to learn to take advice. There are other circumstances in which an exercise of reason is frequently brought into action in regard to moral decisions;—as in some cases in which one duty appears to interfere with another;—likewise in judging whether, in particular instances, any rule of duty is concerned, or whether we are at liberty to take up the case simply as one of expediency or utility. In making their decisions in doubtful cases of this description, we observe great differences in the habits of judging in different individuals. One shews the most minute and scrupulous anxiety, to discover whether the case involves any principle of duty,—and a similar anxiety in acting suitably when he has discovered it. This is what we call a strictly conscientious man. Another, who shews no want of a proper sense of duty when the line is clearly drawn, has less anxiety in such cases as these, and may sacrifice minute or doubtful points to some other feeling,—as self-interest or even friendship,—where the former individual might have discovered a principle of duty.

Reason is also concerned in judging of a description of cases, in which a modification of moral feeling arises from the complexity of actions,—or, in other words, from the circumstances in which the individual is placed. This may be illustrated by the difference of moral sentiment which we attach to the act of taking away the life of another,—when this is done by an individual under the impulse of revenge,—by the same individual in self-defence,—or by a judge in the discharge of his public duty.

There is still another office frequently assigned to Reason in moral decisions,—as when we speak of a man acting upon Reason as opposed to passion. This however is, correctly speaking, only a different use of the term; and it means that he acts upon a calm consideration of the motives by which he ought to be influenced, instead of being hurried away by a desire or an affection which has been allowed to usurp undue influence.

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The important distinction, therefore, which these observations have been intended to illustrate, may be briefly recapitulated in the following manner. Our impression of the aspect of actions, as right or wrong, is conveyed by a principle in the human mind entirely distinct from a simple exercise of reason,—and the standard of moral rectitude derived from this source is, in its own nature, fixed and immutable. But there are many cases in which an exercise of reason may be employed, in referring particular actions to this standard, or trying them, as it were, by means of it. Any such mental process, however, is only to be considered as a kind of test applied to individual instances, and must not be confounded with the standard to which it is the office of this test to refer them. Right or virtuous conduct does, in point of fact, contribute to general utility, as well as to the advantage of the individual, in the true and extended sense of that term, and these tendencies are perceived by Reason. But it is neither of these that constitutes it right. This is founded entirely on a different principle,—the immutable rule of moral rectitude; it is perceived by a different part of our constitution,—the moral principle, or conscience; and, by the operation of this principle, we pronounce it right, without any reference to its consequences either to ourselves or others.

* * * * *

The preceding observations, on Conscience, I leave nearly as they stood in the second edition of this volume. Since the publication of that edition, I have seen various discussions of this important question, but have found nothing to alter the opinion I have expressed, respecting the nature and the authority of conscience as an original principle in our moral constitution; and I see no system by which we can escape from the numerous difficulties surrounding every other view of the subject. In particular, I cannot perceive what is gained by those who refer our moral decisions to a process of reason or judgment alone. For by judgment, in the ordinary and recognised acceptation of the term, I can understand nothing more than a power of comparing two or more facts or impressions together, and tracing their relations. When we apply such a mental process to a question of morals, it can amount to nothing more than a comparison of our conduct with some standard. If those who hold the doctrine referred to, mean any thing more than this,—if they allow the mind a power of moral decision independently of any such standard, then this is precisely what we mean by conscience, and the controversy resolves itself, like not a few that have gone before it, into a dispute about a name. If they do not allow the mind such a power, it then becomes them to say, what is the standard by which its moral judgments are to be formed, and whence it is derived. It appears, I think, distinctly, that it can be derived only from one of two sources. It must either be received through divine revelation; or it must be the result of our speculations respecting utility, in one or other of the forms in which that doctrine is presented to us. There does not appear to be any middle course; and accordingly some late writers, who reject the latter system, while they do not admit the authority of conscience, seem to refer our moral impressions entirely to the will of the Deity as made known to us by revelation. I have formerly stated what seem to me to be insuperable objections to this doctrine. It appears, indeed, to be distinctly opposed by the very words of Scripture, which clearly recognise a power, or a process in the mind by which "those who are without law," that is, without a revelation, "are a law unto themselves, their consciences bearing witness, and their thoughts accusing or else excusing one another."

It does, I confess, appear to me, that some late excellent and respectable writers, in their apprehension of not giving sufficient prominence to the doctrine of human depravity, have greatly under-rated the actual power of conscience, and have thus injured in a most essential manner the important argument which is derived from the moral impressions of the mind. True it is, indeed, that the nature of man is degenerate, and that the effect of this appears in his disregarding and disobeying that monitor within. I am not disposed to differ from the writers referred to, respecting the existence and the extent of this degeneracy, but rather as to the manner in which it operates in the actual moral condition of mankind. I do not say that there is in human nature more good than they assign to it, but that there is more knowledge of what is good; not that men do better than these writers allege, but that they have a greater sense of what they ought to do. Those who maintain the absolute and unusual corruption of conscience may also be reminded of the remarkable differences which are admitted to exist in different men, and the manner in which moral feeling is gradually obscured or overpowered by a course of personal depravity. The facts are universally admitted respecting the contest with moral principle which attends the first stages of vice, and the remorse which follows. But after each departure from virtue, this opposing influence is progressively weakened, and at length destroyed. In this progress, then, we must admit two distinct conditions of the moral feelings,—one in which conscience distinctly points at what is right, however its warnings may be disregarded,—and another in which its warning influence is weakened or lost. In the former condition, I think we may affirm that it asserts its right and its authority, though its strength and its power are departed; and it does not appear to be saying too much, if we say in the striking language of Butler, "had it strength as it had right,—had it power as it had manifest authority, it would absolutely govern the world."


On whatever system we may consider the moral feelings, we perceive that there are various classes of them,—each answering a special purpose in our relations as accountable beings. Some of them, we have seen, refer to objects of desire, the attainment of which appears likely to bring satisfaction. Others lead us to those relations which we bear to our fellow-men. A third class, which remains to be considered, calls our attention to the relation in which we stand to the moral Governor of the universe, and to a certain regulation of the moral feelings arising out of this relation. But this is still another inquiry of the deepest interest, connected with this subject, namely, regarding the harmony or principle of arrangement, which these various classes of moral emotions ought to bear towards each other. They all form parts of our constitution, and deserve a certain degree of attention, which must be carefully adapted to the relative importance of each; and the correct adjustment of this harmony is one of the objects to be answered by the moral principle, combined with a sound exercise of judgment. The rules which apply to it may be stated in the following manner.

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