This lecture was typed in by Eugene Detweiler.
FOUNDATION OF OBLIGATION.
V. POINT OUT THE INTRINSIC ABSURDITY OF THE VARIOUS CONFLICTING THEORIES.
The discussion under this head has been in a great measure anticipated, as we have proceeded in the examination of the theories to which we have attended. But before I dismiss this subject, I will, in accordance with a former suggestion, notice some more instances in which the conditions have been confounded with, and mistaken for, the ground of obligation, which has resulted in much confusion and absurdity. The instances which I shall mention are all to be found in the same author (Mahan's Moral Philosophy), whose rightarian views we have examined. He fully admits, and often affirms, that, strictly speaking, ultimate intentions alone are moral actions. That an ultimate intention must necessarily, and always, find the ground of its obligation exclusively in its object, and in nothing not intrinsic in its object. This he postulates and affirms, as critically as possible. Yet, strange to tell, he goes on to affirm the following, as exclusive grounds of obligation. For the sake of perspicuity I will state his various propositions without quoting them, as to do so would occupy too much space.
1. Strictly speaking, ultimate intentions alone are moral actions. (Ibid. pp. 55, 124.)
2. Ultimate intentions consist in choosing an object for its own sake, or for what is intrinsic in that object, and for no reason not intrinsic in it. (Ibid. pp. 117, 125.)
3. Ultimate intentions must find their reasons, or the grounds of obligation, exclusively in their objects. (Ibid. pp. 55, 56.)
4. The foundation of obligation must universally be intrinsic in the object of choice. (Ibid., pp. 56, 81, 85.) This is his fundamental position. Thus far we agree.
5. Foundation of obligation, is not only what is intrinsic, but also in the relations of its object. (Ibid. pp. 85, 142.) But this contradicts the last assertion.
6. All obligation is founded exclusively in the relations of our being to another. (Ibid., pp. 23, 143.) Here, a mere condition of obligation, to fulfil to those around us certain forms of duty, is confounded with, and even asserted to be, the sole ground of obligation. We have seen in a former lecture, that the various relations of life, are only conditions of certain forms of obligation, while the good connected with the performance of these duties, is the ground of all such forms of obligation. Here he again contradicts No. 4.
7. Again, he asserts that the affirmation of obligation by the moral faculty, is the ground of obligation. (Ibid. p. 23.) Here again a condition is asserted to be the ground of obligation. The affirmation of obligation by the reason is, no doubt, a sine quà non of the obligation, but it cannot be the ground of it. What, has the moral faculty no reason for affirming obligation to choose the good of being, but the affirmation itself? Is the affirmation of obligation to choose, identical with the object of that choice? Another contradiction of No. 4.
8. Again, he says, the foundation of obligation is found exclusively in the relation of choice to its object. (Ibid. pp. 79, 86.) Here again a condition is confounded with, and asserted to be, the exclusive ground of obligation. Contradiction again of No. 4.
9. Again, he says that the foundation of obligation is found exclusively in the character of the choice itself. (Ibid. pp. 76.) But the character of the choice is determined by the object on which it terminates. The nature of the object must create obligation to choose it for its own sake, or the choice of it is not right. Here, it is plain, that a condition is again asserted to be the universal ground of obligation. Were it not right to choose an object, for its own sake, the choice of it would have no right character, and there could be no obligation. But it is as absurd as possible to make the character of the choice the ground of the obligation. This also contradicts No. 4.
10. Again, he affirms, that the idea of duty is the exclusive ground of obligation. This theory we have before examined. Here it is plain, that a condition is made the exclusive ground of obligation. If we had not the idea of duty, we, of course, should not have the idea of obligation, for, in fact, these ideas are identical: but it is totally absurd to say that this idea is the ground of obligation. This also contradicts No. 4.
11. Again, he asserts, that the relation of intrinsic fitness, existing between choice and its object, is the exclusive ground of obligation. (Ibid. p. 86.) This theory we have examined, as that of the rightarian. All I need say here is, that this is another instance in which a condition is made the sole ground of obligation. Did not this relation exist, the obligation could not exist, but it is impossible, as has been shown, that the relation should be the ground of this obligation. This also contradicts No. 4. He says, again--
12. That obligation is sometimes founded, exclusively, in the moral character of the being to whom we are under obligation. (Ibid. p. 86.) To this theory we have alluded; I only remark here, that this is another instance of confounding a condition with the ground of certain forms of obligation. This we have seen in the preceding pages. This contradicts No. 4.
13. That the ground of obligation is found, partly in the nature of choice, partly in the nature of the object, and partly in the relation of fitness existing between choice and its object. (Ibid. pp. 106, 107, 108.) Here, again, a condition is made the universal ground of obligation. Were not choice what it is, and good what it is, and did not the relation of fitness exist between choice and its object, obligation could not exist. But, we have seen, that it is impossible that anything but the intrinsic nature of the good should be the ground of the obligation. This contradicts No. 4.
14. Again, he affirms, that the ground of obligation is identical with the reason, or consideration, in view of which the intellect affirms obligation: but this cannot be true. The vast majority of cases, in which we are conscious of affirming obligation, respect executive acts, or volitions, and in nearly all such cases the consideration in the immediate view of the mind, when it affirms the obligation, is some other than the ultimate reason, or ground of the obligation, and which is only a condition of obligation in that particular form. For example, the revealed will of God, the utility of the act, as preaching the gospel, or the rightness of the act, either of these may be, and often is, the reason immediately before the mind, and the reason thought of at the time, the question of duty is settled and the affirmation of obligation to perform an act of benevolence is made. But who does not know, and admit, that neither of the above reasons can be the ground of obligation to will or to do good? The writer who makes the assertion we are examining, has elsewhere and often affirmed that, in all acts of benevolence, or of willing the good of being, the intrinsic nature of the good is the ground of the obligation. It is absurd to deny this, as we have abundantly seen. The facts are these: we necessarily assume our obligation to will, and do good for its own sake. This is a necessarily-assumed and omnipresent truth with every moral agent. We go forth with this assumption in our minds; we therefore only need to know that any act, or course of action on our part, is demanded to promote the highest good; and we therefore, and in view thereof, affirm obligation to perform that act, or to pursue that course of action. Suppose a young man to be inquiring after the path of duty in regard to his future course of life; he seeks to know the will of God respecting it; he inquires after the probabilities of greater or less usefulness. If he can get clear light upon either of these points, he regards the question as settled. He has now ascertained what is right, and affirms his obligation accordingly. Now, should you ask him what had settled his convictions, and in view of what considerations he has affirmed his obligation, to preach the gospel, for example, he would naturally refer either to the will of God, to the utility of that course of life, or, perhaps, to the rightness of it. But would he, in thus doing, assign, or even suppose himself to assign, the fundamental reason or ground of the obligation? No, indeed, he cannot but know that the good to be secured by this course of life, is the ground of the obligation to pursue it; that but for the intrinsic value of the good, such a course of life would not be useful. But for the intrinsic value of the good, God would not will that he should pursue that course of life; that but for the intrinsic value of the good, such a course would not be right. God's willing that he should preach the gospel; the utility of this course of life, and of course its rightness, all depend upon the intrinsic value of the good, to which this course of life sustains the relation of a means. The will of God, the useful tendency, or the rightness of the course, might either or all of them be thought of as reasons in view of which the obligation was affirmed, while it is self-evident that neither of them can be the ground of the obligation. In regard to executive acts, or the use of means to secure good, we almost never decide what is duty by reference to, or in view of, the fundamental reason, or ground of obligation which invariably must be the intrinsic nature of the good, but only in view of a mere condition of the obligation. Whenever the will of God reveals the path of usefulness, it reveals the path of right and of duty, and is a condition of the obligation in the sense that, without such revelation, we should not know what course to pursue to secure the highest good. The utility of any course of executive acts is a condition of its rightness, and, of course, of obligation to pursue that course. The ultimate reason, or ground of obligation to will and do good, is, and must be, in the mind, and must have its influence in the decision of every question of duty; but this is not generally the reason thought of, when the affirmed obligation respects executive acts merely. I say, the intrinsic nature of the ultimate end, for the sake of which the executive acts are demanded, must be in the mind as the ground of the obligation, and as the condition of the affirmation of the obligation to put forth executive acts to secure that end, although this fundamental reason is not in the immediate view of the mind, as the object of conscious attentions at the time. We necessarily assume our obligation to will good for its own sake; all our inquiries after diverse forms of obligation, respect ways, and means, and conditions, of securing the highest good. Whatever reveals to us the best ways and means, reveals the path of duty. We always affirm those best ways and means to be the right course of action, and assign the utility, or the rightness, or the will of God, which has required, and thus revealed them, as the reasons in view of which we have decided upon the path of duty. But, in no such case do we ever intend to assign the ultimate reason, or ground, of the obligation; and if we did, we should be under an evident mistake. In every affirmation of obligation, we do, without noticing it, assume the first truths of reason--our own liberty or ability; that every event must have a cause; that the good of universal being ought to be chosen and promoted because of its intrinsic value; that whatever sustains to that good the relation of a necessary means, ought to be chosen for the sake of the good; that God's revealed will always discloses the best ways and means of securing the highest good, and therefore reveals universal law. These first truths are at the bottom of the mind in all affirmations of obligation, and are, universally, conditions of the affirmation of obligation. But these assumptions, or first truths, are not, in general, the truths immediately thought of when obligation to put forth executive acts is affirmed. It is, therefore, a great mistake to say that whatever consideration is in the immediate view of the mind at the time, is the ground of the obligation.
15. With respect to obligation to will the good of being, he asserts--
(1.) That happiness is the only ultimate good. (Ibid. pp. 114, 115.)
(2.) That all obligation to will good, in any form, is founded exclusively in the intrinsic value or nature of the good. (Ibid. p. 97.) To this I agree.
(3.) Again, he asserts repeatedly, that susceptibility of good is the sole ground of obligation to will good to a being. (Ibid. pp. 106, 107, 115, 116, 122.) Here, again, it is plain that a mere condition is asserted to be the universal ground of obligation to will good. Were there no susceptibility of good, we should be under no obligation to will good to a being, but susceptibility for good is of itself no better reason for willing good than evil to a being. If susceptibility were a ground of obligation, then a susceptibility of evil would be a ground of obligation to will evil. This has been abundantly shown. This contradicts Nos. 4 and 2.
(4.) Again: holiness, he asserts, is a ground of obligation to will good to its possessor. (Ibid. pp. 102, 107.) We have seen that holiness is only a condition of obligation, in the form of willing the actual enjoyment of good by a particular individual, while in every possible instance, the nature of the good, and not the character of the individual, is the ground of the obligation. This contradicts Nos. 4 and 2.
(5.) He affirms that holiness is never a ground of obligation to will good to any being; and that so far as willing the good of any being is concerned, our obligation is the same, whatever the character may be. (Ibid. p. 111.) This as flatly as possible contradicts what he elsewhere affirms. The several positions of this writer contradict his fundamental position, and also each other, as flatly as possible. They are but a tissue of absurdities.
Some writers have held that the moral perfection of moral agents is the great end of creation, and that to which all such agents ought to consecrate themselves, and of course that the intrinsic nature of moral perfection is the ground of obligation. To this I reply,
It is true that the mind of a moral agent cannot rest and be satisfied short of moral perfection. When that state is attained by any mind, so far as respects its own present state, that mind is satisfied, but the satisfaction, and not the moral perfection, is the ultimate good. Moral perfection results in happiness, or mental satisfaction, and this satisfaction is and must be the ultimate good.
Observe, I do not say that our own happiness is the great end at which we ought to aim, or that the intrinsic value of our own enjoyment is the ground of obligation. But I do say that the highest good, or blessedness of the universe, is the ultimate good, and its nature or intrinsic value is the ground of obligation.