This lecture was typed in by Mike Miller.
FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION.
PRACTICAL BEARINGS OF DIFFERENT THEORIES.
4. Practical bearings and tendency of rightarianism.
It will be recollected that this philosophy teaches that right is the foundation of moral obligation. With its advocates, virtue consists in willing the right for the sake of the right, instead of willing the good for the sake of the good, or, more strictly, in willing the good for the sake of the right, and not for the sake of the good; or, as we have seen, the foundation of obligation consists in the relation of intrinsic fitness existing between the choice and the good. The right is the ultimate end to be aimed at in all things, instead of the highest good of being for its own sake. From such a theory the following consequences must flow. I speak only of consistent rightarianism.
(1.) The law of benevolence undeniably requires the good of being to be willed for its own sake. But this theory is directly opposed to this, and maintains that the good should be chosen because it is right, and not because of the nature of the good. It overlooks the fact, that the choice of the good would not be right, did not the nature of the good create the obligation to choose it for its own sake, and consequently originate the relation of fitness or rightness between the choice and the good.
But if the rightarian theory is true, there is a law of right entirely distinct from, and opposed to, the law of love or benevolence. The advocates of this theory often assume, perhaps unwittingly, the existence of such a law. They speak of multitudes of things as being right or wrong in themselves, entirely independent of the law of benevolence. Nay, they go so far as to affirm it conceivable that doing right might necessarily tend to, and result in, universal misery; and that, in such a case, we should be under obligation to do right, or will right, or intend right, although universal misery should be the necessary result. This assumes and affirms that right has no necessary relation to willing the highest good of being for its own sake, or, what is the same thing, that the law of right is not only distinct from the law of benevolence, but is directly opposed to it; that a moral agent may be under obligation to will as an ultimate end that which he knows will and must, by a law of necessity, promote and secure universal misery. Rightarians sternly maintain that right would be right, and that virtue would be virtue, although this result were a necessary consequence. What is this but maintaining that moral law may require moral agents to set their hearts upon and consecrate themselves to that which is necessarily subversive of the well-being of the entire universe? And what is this but assuming that that may be moral law that requires a course of willing and acting entirely inconsistent with the nature and relations of moral agents? Thus virtue and benevolence not only may be different but opposite things; of course, according to this, benevolence may be sin. This is not only opposed to our reason, but a more capital or mischievous error in morals or philosophy can hardly be conceived.
Nothing is or can be right, as an ultimate choice, but benevolence. Nothing is or can be moral law but that which requires that course of willing and acting that tends to secure the highest well-being of God and the universe. Nothing can be moral law but that which requires that the highest well-being of God and of the universe should be chosen as an ultimate end. If benevolence is right, this must be self-evident. Rightarianism overlooks and misrepresents the very nature of moral law. Let any one contemplate the grossness of the absurdity that maintains, that moral law may require a course of willing that necessarily results in universal and perfect misery. What then, it may be asked, has moral law to do with the nature and relations of moral agents, except to mock, insult, and trample them under foot? Moral law is, and must be, the law of nature, that is, suited to the nature and relations of moral agents. But can that law be suited to the nature and relations of moral agents that requires a course of action necessarily resulting in universal misery? Rightarianism then, not only overlooks, but flatly contradicts, the very nature of moral law, and sets up a law of right in direct opposition to the law of nature.
(2.) This philosophy tends naturally to fanaticism. Conceiving as it does of right as distinct from, and often opposed to, benevolence, it scoffs or rails at the idea of inquiring what the highest good evidently demands. It insists that such and such things are right or wrong in themselves, entirely irrespective of what the highest good demands. Having thus in mind a law of right distinct from, and perhaps, opposed to benevolence, what frightful conduct may not this philosophy lead to? This is indeed the law of fanaticism. The tendency of this philosophy is illustrated in the spirit of many reformers, who are bitterly contending for the right, which, after all, is to do nobody any good.
(3.) This philosophy teaches a false morality and a false religion. It exalts right above God, and represents virtue as consisting in the love of right instead of the love of God. It exhorts men to will the right for the sake of the right, instead of the good of being for the sake of the good, or for the sake of being. It teaches us to inquire, How shall I do right? instead of, How shall I do good? What is right? instead of, What will most promote the good of the universe? Now that which is most promotive of the highest good of being, is right. To intend the highest well-being of God and of the universe, is right. To use the necessary means to promote this end, is right; and whatever in the use of means or in outward action is right, is so for this reason, namely, that it is designed to promote the highest well-being of God and of the universe. To ascertain, then, what is right, we must inquire, not into a mere abstraction, but what is intended. Or if we would know what is duty, or what would be right in us, we must understand that to intend the highest well-being of the universe as an end, is right and duty; and that in practice every thing is duty or right that is honestly intended to secure this. Thus and thus only can we ascertain what is right in intention, and what is right in the outward life. But rightarianism points out an opposite course. It says: Will the right for the sake of the right, that is, as an end; and in respect to means, inquire not what is manifestly for the highest good of being, for with this you have nothing to do; your business is to will the right for the sake of the right. If you inquire how you are to know what is right, it does not direct you to the law of benevolence as the only standard, but it directs you to an abstract idea of right, as an ultimate rule, having no regard to the law of benevolence or love. It tells you that right is right, because it is right; and not that right is conformity to the law of benevolence, and right for this reason. The truth is that subjective right, or right in practice, is only a quality of disinterested benevolence. But the philosophy in question denies this, and holds that, so far from being a quality of benevolence, it must consist in willing the good for the sake of the right. Now certainly such teaching is radically false, and subversive of all sound morality and true religion.
(4.) As we have formerly seen, this philosophy does not represent virtue as consisting in the love of God, or of Christ, or our neighbour. Consistency must require the abettors of this scheme to give fundamentally false instructions to inquiring sinners. Instead of representing God and all holy beings as devoted to the public good, and instead of exhorting sinners to love God and their neighbour, this philosophy must represent God and holy beings as consecrated to right for the sake of the right; and must exhort sinners, who ask what they shall do to be saved, to will the right for the sake of the right, to love the right, to deify right, and fall down and worship it. There is much of this false morality and religion in the world and in the church. Infidels are great sticklers for this religion, and often exhibit as much of it as do some rightarian professors of religion. It is a severe, stern, loveless, Godless, Christless philosophy, and nothing but happy inconsistency prevents its advocates from manifesting it in this light to the world. I have already, in a former lecture, shown that this theory is identical with that which represents the idea of duty as the foundation of moral obligation, and that it gives the same instructions to inquiring sinners. It exhorts them to resolve to do duty, to resolve to serve the Lord, to make up their minds at all times to do right, to resolve to give their hearts to God, to resolve to conform in all things to right, &c. The absurdity and danger of such instructions were sufficiently exposed in the lecture referred to. (See Lecture VIII. 8.) The law of right, when conceived of as distinct from, or opposed to, the law of benevolence, is a perfect strait-jacket, an iron collar, a snare of death.
This philosophy represents all war, all slavery, and many things as wrong per se, without insisting upon such a definition of those things as necessarily implies selfishness. Any thing whatever is wrong in itself that includes and implies selfishness, and nothing else is or can be. All war waged for selfish purposes is wrong per se. But war waged for benevolent purposes, or war required by the law of benevolence, and engaged in with a benevolent design, is neither wrong in itself, nor wrong in any proper sense. All holding men in bondage from selfish motives is wrong in itself, but holding men in bondage in obedience to the law of benevolence is not wrong but right. And so it is with every thing else. Therefore, where it is insisted that all war and all slavery, or any thing else is wrong in itself, such a definition of things must be insisted on as necessarily implies selfishness. But consistent rightarianism will insist that all war, all slavery, and all of many other things, is wrong in itself, without regard to its being a violation of the law of benevolence. This is consistent with such philosophy, but it is most false and absurd in fact. Indeed, any philosophy that assumes the existence of a law of right distinct from, and possibly opposed to, the law of benevolence, must teach many doctrines at war with both reason and revelation. It sets men in chase of a philosophical abstraction as the supreme end of life, instead of the concrete reality of the highest well-being of God and the universe. It preys upon the human soul, and turns into solid iron all the tender sensibilities of our being. Do but contemplate a human being supremely devoted to an abstraction, as the end of human life. He wills the right for the sake of the right. Or, more strictly, he wills the good of being, not from any regard to being, but because of the relation of intrinsic fitness or rightness existing between choice and its object. For this he lives, and moves, and has his being. What sort of religion is this? I wish not to be understood as holding, or insinuating, that professed rightarians universally, or even generally, pursue their theory to its legitimate boundary, and that they manifest the spirit that it naturally begets. No. I am most happy in acknowledging that with many, and perhaps with most of them, it is so purely a theory, that they are not greatly influenced by it in practice. Many of them I regard as the excellent of the earth, and I am happy to count them among my dearest and most valued friends. But I speak of the philosophy, with its natural results when embraced, not merely as a theory, but when adopted by the heart as the rule of life. It is only in such cases that its natural and legitimate fruits appear. Only let it be borne in mind that right is conformity to moral law, that moral law is the law of nature, or the law founded in the nature and relations of moral agents, the law that requires just that course of willing and action that tends naturally to secure the highest well-being of all moral agents, that requires this course of willing and acting for the sake of the end in which it naturally and governmentally results--and requires that this end shall be aimed at or intended by all moral agents as the supreme good and the only ultimate end of life;--I say, only let these truths be borne in mind, and you will never talk of a right, or a virtue, or a law, obedience to which necessarily results in universal misery; nor will you conceive that such a thing is possible.
5. The philosophy that comes next under review is that which teaches that the divine goodness, or moral excellence, is the foundation of moral obligation.
The practical tendency of this philosophy is to inculcate and develope a false idea of what constitutes virtue. It inevitably leads its advocates to regard religion as consisting in a mere feeling of complacency in God. It overlooks, and, if consistent, must overlook the fact that all true morality and religion consist in benevolence, or in willing the highest well-being of God and the universe as an ultimate end. It must represent true religion either as a phenomenon of the sensibility, or as consisting in willing the goodness or benevolence of God as an end; either of which is radical error. This scheme does not, and cannot, rightly represent either the character of God, or the nature and spirit of his law and government. In teaching, it presents the benevolence of God, not as an inducement to benevolence in us, that is, not as a means of leading us to consider and adopt the same end of life to which God is consecrated, but as being the end to which we are to consecrate ourselves. It holds forth the goodness of God, not for the sake of setting the great end he has in view strongly before us, and inducing us to become like him in consecrating ourselves to the same end, to wit, the highest good of being; but it absurdly insists that his goodness is the foundation of our obligation, which is the same thing as to insist that we are to make his goodness the ultimate end of life, instead of that end at which God aims, and aiming at which constitutes his virtue. Instead of representing the benevolence of God as clearly revealing our obligation to be benevolent, it represents his benevolence as being the foundation of obligation. Obligation to what? Not to will good, certainly; for it is a gross contradiction, as we have repeatedly seen, to say that I am under obligation to will good to God, as an ultimate end, or for its own sake, yet not for this reason, but because God is good. This philosophy, if consistent, must present the goodness of God as a means of awakening emotions of complacency in God, and not for the purpose of making us benevolent, for it does not regard religion as consisting in benevolence, but in a love to God for his goodness, which can be nothing else than a feeling of complacency. But this is radical error. The practical bearings of this theory are well illustrated in the arguments used to support it, as stated and refuted when examining its claims in a former lecture. The fact is, it misrepresents the character, law, and government of God, and, of necessity, the nature of true religion. It harps perpetually on the goodness of God as the sole reason for loving him, which demonstrates that benevolence does not, and consistently cannot, enter into its idea of virtue or true religion.
There is, no doubt, a vast amount of spurious, selfish religion in the world growing out of this philosophy. Many love God because they regard him as loving them, as being their benefactor and particular friend. They are grateful for favours bestowed on self. But they forget the philosophy and theology of Christ, who said; "If ye love them that love you, what thank have ye? Do not even sinners love those that love them?" They seem to have no idea of a religion of disinterested benevolence. Many of those who hold this view regard religion as consisting in involuntary emotions and affections, and seem disposed to love God in proportion as they imagine him to regard them as his especial favourites. They regard his fancied partiality to them as an instance of particular goodness in him. They want to feel emotions of complacency in God, in view of his particular regard to them, rather than to sympathize with his universal benevolence.
6. The next theory to be noticed is that which teaches that moral order is the foundation of moral obligation.
The practical objection to this theory is, that it presents a totally wrong end as the great object of life. According to the teachings of this school, moral order is that intrinsically valuable end at which all moral agents ought to aim, and to which they are bound to consecrate themselves. If by moral order the highest good of being is intended, this philosophy is only another name for the true one. But if, as I suppose is the fact, by moral order no such thing as the highest good of God and the universe is intended, then the theory is false, and cannot teach other than pernicious error. It must misrepresent God, his law and government, and of course must hold radically false views in respect to the nature of holiness and sin. It holds up an abstraction as the end of life, and exalts moral order above all that is called God. It teaches that men ought to love moral order with all the heart, and with all the soul. But the theory is sheer nonsense, as was shown in its place. Its practical bearing is only to bewilder and confuse the mind. The idea that benevolence is true religion, can have no practical influence on a mind that has consistently embraced this theory of moral order. Any philosophy that obscures this idea of benevolence, and confuses the mind in respect to the true end of life, is fatal to virtue and to salvation.
Again: The theory must overlook or deny the fact that moral obligation respects the ultimate intention; for it seems impossible that any one possessing reason can suppose, that moral order can be the end to which moral beings ought to consecrate themselves. The absurdity of the theory itself was sufficiently exposed in a former lecture. Its practical bearings and tendency are only to introduce confusion into all our ideas of moral law and moral government.
7. We next come to the theory that moral obligation is founded in the nature and relations of moral agents.
The first objection to this theory is, that it confounds the conditions of moral obligation with its foundation. The nature and relations of moral beings are certainly conditions of their obligation to will each other's good. But it is absolutely childish to affirm that the obligation to will each other's good is not founded in the value of the good, but in the nature and relations of moral beings. But for the intrinsic value of their good, their nature and relations would be no reason at all why they should will good rather than evil to each other. To represent the nature and relations of moral agents as the foundation of moral obligation, is to mystify and misrepresent the whole subject of moral law, moral government, moral obligation, the nature of sin and holiness, and produce confusion in all our thoughts on moral subjects. What but grossest error can find a lodgment in that mind that consistently regards the nature and relations of moral beings as the foundation of moral obligation? If this be the true theory, then the nature and relations of moral agents is the ultimate end to which moral agents are bound to consecrate themselves. Their nature and relations is the intrinsically valuable end which we are bound to choose for its own sake. This is absurd. But if this philosophy misrepresents the foundation of moral obligation, it can consistently teach absolutely nothing but error on the whole subject of morals and religion. If it mistakes the end to be intended by moral agents, it errs on the fundamental principle of all morals and religion. As all true morality and true religion consist exclusively in willing the right end, if this end be mistaken, the error is fatal. It is, then, no light thing to hold that moral obligation is founded in the nature and relations of moral beings. Such statements are a great deal worse than nonsense--they are radical error on the most important subject in the world. What consistency can there be in the views of one who holds this theory? What ideas must he have of moral law, and of everything else connected with practical theology? Instead of willing the highest good of God and of being, he must hold himself under obligation to will the nature and relations of moral beings as an ultimate end.
8. The next theory in order is that which teaches that the idea of duty is the foundation of moral obligation.
But as I sufficiently exposed the tendency and practical bearings of this theory in a former lecture, I will not repeat here, but pass to the consideration of another theory.
9. The complexity of the foundation of moral obligation.
In respect to the practical bearings of this theory, I remark,--
(1.) The reason that induces choice is the real object chosen. If, for example, the value of an object induce the choice of that object, the valuable is the real object chosen. If the rightness of a choice of an object induce choice, then the right is the real object chosen. If the virtuousness of an object induce choice, then virtue is the real object chosen.
(2.) Whatever really influences the mind in choosing must be an object chosen. Thus if the mind have various reasons for a choice, it will choose various ends or objects.
(3.) If the foundation of moral obligation be not a unit, moral action or intention cannot be simple. If anything else than the intrinsically valuable to being is, or can be, the foundation of moral obligation, then this thing, whatever it is, is to be chosen for its own sake. If right, justice, truth, virtue, or anything else is to be chosen as an end, then just so much regard must be had to them, as their nature and importance demand. If the good or valuable to being be an ultimate good, and truth, and justice, and virtue are also to be chosen each for its own sake, here we meet with this difficulty, namely, that the good or valuable is one end to be chosen, and right another, and virtue another, and truth another, and justice another, and the beautiful another, and so on. Now if this be so, moral obligation cannot be a unit, nor can moral action be simple. If there be more ultimate considerations than one that ought to have influence in deciding choice, the choice is not right, unless each consideration that ought to have weight, really has the influence due to it in deciding choice. If each consideration has not its due regard, the choice certainly is not what it ought to be. In other words, all the things that ought to be chosen for their own sakes are not chosen. Indeed, it is self-evident that, if there is complexity in the ultimate end or end to be chosen, there must be the same complexity in the choice, or the choice is not what it ought to be; and if several considerations ought to influence ultimate choice, then there are so many distinct ultimate ends. If this is so, then each of them must have its due regard in every case of virtuous intention. But who then could ever tell whether he allowed to each exactly the relative influence it ought to have? This would confound and stultify the whole subject of moral obligation. This theory virtually and flatly contradicts the law of God and the repeated declaration that love to God and our neighbour is the whole of virtue. What! does God say that all the law is fulfilled in one word--love, that is, love to God and our neighbour? and shall a Christian philosopher overlook this, and insist that we ought to love not only God and our neighbour, but to will the right, and the true, and the just, and the beautiful, and multitudes of such like things for their own sake? The law of God makes and know only one ultimate end, and shall this philosophy be allowed to confuse us by teaching that there are many ultimate ends, that we ought to will each for its own sake?
10. Lastly, I come to the consideration of the practical bearings of what I regard as the true theory of the foundation of moral obligation, namely, that the intrinsic nature and value of the highest well-being of God and of the universe is the sole foundation of moral obligation.
Upon this philosophy I remark--
1. That if this be true, the whole subject of moral obligation is perfectly simple and intelligible; so plain, indeed, that "the wayfaring man, though a fool, cannot err therein."
(1.) Upon this theory, moral obligation respects the choice of an ultimate end.
(2.) This end is a clear, simple unit.
(3.) It is necessarily known to every moral agent.
(4.) The choice of this end is the whole of virtue.
(5.) It is impossible to sin while this end is sincerely intended with all the heart and with all the soul.
(6.) Upon this theory, every moral agent knows in every possible instance what is right, and can never mistake his real duty.
We may state it thus--
His duty is to will this end with all the known conditions and means thereof. Intending this end with a single eye, and doing what appears to him, with all the light he can obtain, to be in the highest degree calculated to secure this end, he really does his duty. If in this case he is mistaken in regard to what is the best means of securing this end, still, with a benevolent intention, he does not sin. He has done right, for he has intended as he ought, and acted outwardly as he thought was the path of duty, under the best light he could obtain. This, then, was his duty. He did not mistake his duty; because it was duty to intend as he intended, and under the circumstances, to act as he acted. How else should he have acted?
(7.) This ultimate intention is right, and nothing else is right, more or less.
(8.) Right and wrong respect ultimate intention only, and are always the same. Right can be predicated only of good will, and wrong only of selfishness. These are fixed and permanent. If a moral agent can know what end he aims at or lives for, he can know, and cannot but know, at all times, whether he is right or wrong. All that upon this theory a moral agent needs to be certain of is, whether he lives for the right end, and this, if at all honest, or if dishonest, he really cannot but know. If he would ask, what is right or what is duty at any time, he need not wait for a reply. It is right for him to intend the highest good of being as an end. If he honestly does this, he cannot mistake his duty, for in doing this he really performs the whole of duty. With this honest intention, it is impossible that he should not use the means to promote this end, according to the best light he has; and this is right. A single eye to the highest good of God and the universe, is the whole of morality, strictly considered; and, upon this theory, moral law, moral government, moral obligation, virtue, vice, and the whole subject of morals and religion are the perfection of simplicity. If this theory be true, no honest mind ever mistook the path of duty. To intend the highest good of being is right and is duty. No mind is honest that is not steadily pursuing this end. But in the honest pursuit of this end there can be no sin, no mistaking the path of duty. That is and must be the path of duty that really appears to a benevolent mind to be so. That is, it must be his duty to act in conformity with his honest convictions. This is duty, this is right. So, upon this theory, no one who is truly honest in pursuing the highest good of being, ever did or can mistake his duty in any such sense as to commit sin. I have spoken with great plainness, and perhaps with some severity, of the several systems of error, as I cannot but regard them upon the most fundamental and important of subjects; not certainly from any want of love to those who hold them, but from a concern, long cherished and growing upon me, for the honour of truth and for the good of being. Should any of you ever take the trouble to look into this subject, in its length and breadth, and read the various systems, and take the trouble to trace out their practical results, as actually developed in the opinions and practices of men, you certainly would not be at a loss to account for the theological and philosophical fogs that so bewilder the world. How can it be otherwise, while such confusion of opinion prevails upon the fundamental question of morals and religion?
How is it, that there is so much profession and so little real practical benevolence in the world? Multitudes of professed Christians seem to have no conception that benevolence constitutes true religion; that nothing else does; and that selfishness is sin, and totally incompatible with religion. They live on in their self-indulgences, and dream of heaven. This could not be, if the true idea of religion, as consisting in sympathy with the benevolence of God, was fully developed in their minds.
I need not dwell upon the practical bearings of the other theories, which I have examined; what I have said may suffice, as an illustration of the importance of being well-established in this fundamental truth. It is affecting to see what conceptions multitudes entertain in regard to the real spirit and meaning of the law and gospel of God, and, consequently, of the nature of holiness.
In dismissing this subject, I would remark, that any system of moral philosophy that does not correctly define a moral action, and the real ground of obligation, must be fundamentally defective. Nay, if consistent, it must be highly pernicious and dangerous. But let moral action be clearly and correctly defined, let the true ground of obligation be clearly and correctly stated; and let both these be kept constantly in view, and such a system would be of incalculable value. It would be throughout intelligible, and force conviction upon every intelligent reader. But I am not aware that any such system exists. So far as I know, they are all faulty, either in their definition of a moral action, and do not fasten the eye upon the ultimate intention, and keep it there as being the seat of moral character, and that from which the character of all our actions is derived; or they soon forget this, and treat mere executive acts as right or wrong, without reference to the ultimate intention. I believe they have all failed in not clearly defining the true ground of obligation, and, consequently, are faulty in their definition of virtue. It is truly wonderful, that those who hold with President Edwards, that virtue consists in disinterested benevolence, should also insist that right is the ground of obligation. This is a contradiction. If right be the true ground of obligation, then benevolence can never be right. Benevolence consists in willing the good of being for the sake of the good; in consecration to the good of being in general, for its own sake. But if right be the ground of obligation, it is universally duty to will right instead of the good of being as an end.
According to this theory, benevolence is sin. It is consecration to the wrong end. Nay, if any other theory than the one I have endeavoured to maintain be the true one, then disinterested benevolence is sin. But if the benevolence theory be the true one, then conformity to every other theory is sin. It is undeniable, that virtue must belong to the ultimate intention or choice of the end of life. The character must be as the end is for which a moral agent lives. The inquiry, then, must be fundamental, What is the right end of life? A mistake here is fatal to virtue.