SIMPLICITY OF MORAL ACTIONS.
By the Junior Editor
[Rev. William Cochran]
Part 1 of 5.
The Oberlin Quarterly Review
[Retyped and reprinted (exactly) in April 1999 by Rick Friedrich.]
THE greatest differences of opinion in respect to religious ceremonies and forms of worship, whether we assign them a place within the territory of "unlearned and foolish questions" or upon the limits of "the faith once delivered to the saints," are equally barren of all important logical consequences, and can never acquire the right to extend themselves into the domain of practical theology. However prolific, therefore, they may be in strife and commotion upon the border-lands of religion, they can never be inconsistent with entire harmony within its sacred boundaries. But it is far otherwise with such as relate to the nature or essential properties of Moral Actions. Originating, as they do, in the very source and central life of moral agency, their logical consequences must, of necessity, sweep the whole circle of ethical science, and run through every individual doctrine "pertaining to life and godliness." And whether great or small in their origin, we may rationally expect that they will preserve a proportionate magnitude throughout the whole line of their logical extension. It is plain, therefore, that "necessity is laid upon" the advocate and opponent of the doctrine of the simplicity of moral actions, to hold views almost fundamentally unlike in relation to the doctrines of faith and repentance, the conditions of pardon and justification, the nature and possibility of sanctification, the import and liabilities of sin after conversion, and in fact in relation to every other doctrine that at all involves responsible agency.
Before entering directly upon the discussion of the question before us, we be leave to lay before the reader a slight survey of the most important of these differences.
The advocate of the doctrine under consideration, denying the possibility of any mean between an action wholly right, and an action wholly wrong, must maintain, that the sinner in the very instant of consecrating himself to God, affects a total change in his moral character; that his penitence and submission are then unmingled with impenitence and willfulness, and his faith and charity unalloyed with unbelief and selfishness; and that, until he lapses from that state, he will continue to be as free from all sin as before entering upon it, he was free from all righteousness. His opponent, on the contrary, conceiving that the same action may be both right and wrong, finds no logical difficulty in believing that every virtue which adorns the christian character, may be locked in deadly strife, or friendly greeting, with a kindred vice; and consequently, that penitence and impenitence, submission and willfulness, benevolence and selfishness may meet in the very act of consecration, and ever after, till the triumph of the dying hour, nestle together in the same bosom.
The opposing kingdoms of absolute right and absolute wrong, according to the former theory, are separated from one another only by a mathematical line; and it is but the act of a single moment to effect a total transfer of our governmental relations and allegiance. The latter admits of no such precise boundary, but requires us to regard them rather, like the rival empires of light and darkness, as gradually melting away into each other: and consequently, allows us to suppose, that an indefinite period may be consumed in passing from the unillumined midnight of sin to the ceaseless noon of "perfect love." Nay, strict logic has nothing to oppose the conclusion, that we may linger eternally if we choose, where we first meet the faintly struggling rays of approaching twilight, or where light and darkness are combined in equal ratio, or at any other point between the exclusive control of one or the other.
Both theories admit, that repentance is an indispensable condition of justification. But, according to the former, where true repentance exists, no sin is ever found; consequently, sin and justification can never meet in the same person at the same time. According to the latter, sin either is or may be mixed with all we do. If it is mixed with all we do; it is plain, that we must either be justified in sin, or not justified at all. If it may be mixed with all we do, we must conclude, either that sin is not inconsistent with justification, or that true repentance is not inconsistent with exposure to perdition.
An act of transgression after conversion, according to the former view, implies during the time of its continuance, an entire suspension of all right choice or intention, cancels the act of justification, and creates a real exposure to the condemnatory sentence of the divine law. According to the latter, a right intention once formed, lives on in undiminished vigor through every kind of sin, lust and murder not accepted; and the act of pardon that first smiled upon its happy birth, "never leaves of forsakes it."
The adherent of the view must maintain, that if the law of God is ever obeyed at all, its perfectly obeyed; and that entire consecration is the very starting point of all true religion. The adherent of the opposite view, believing that true religion may commence with very imperfect obedience, may consistently enough propose to himself entire consecration as the goal of his highest earthly attainment.
Without pursuing this parallel further, we think it must be already sufficiently evident to the reader, that whichever of these theories be true, the other must be dangerously, if not fundamentally false. Many zealous advocates there may be, or either view, who can satisfy their abhorrence of the other, with no less serious an imputation, than that of downright heresy. But even these are not under the painful necessity of regarding their opponents as heretics. For although it is true, that men's lives are generally worse than their creeds, it is also true, that in many cases they are indefinitely better. Nevertheless, no intelligent Christian who has well considered the relation of faith to practice, can contemplate discrepancies of such vast magnitude, with any thing like indifference. Heresy in the creed, naturally and unavoidably tends in the same proportion, to mar the beauty and symmetry of Christian character, and poison the very fountains of moral life. To conclude, therefore, because a truly orthodox life often keeps company with a heretical creed, and vice versa, that all creeds are alike harmless, is a egregious folly as to infer from the fact, that many who have used daily and in large quantity both rum and tobacco, have lived as long and enjoyed as good health as their temperate neighbors; that narcotics and alcoholic stimulants are fraught with no more injury to the human system than cold water and wholesome diet. "A form of sound words" can never be the object of an intelligent sneer. The only creed from which absolutely no injury is to be apprehended, is one which quadrates exactly with the revelations of human consciousness and the truth as it is in Jesus Christ.
If this remark be true, the question before us is one of fearful importance. And the effort to settle it is not, as many seem to suppose, like a vain dispute whether an insignificant branch that has wandered farthest from the parent trunk and central life of the vine shall be pruned away. It resembles rather a contest, whether a main branch laden with rich and purple clusters, or fragrant with their blooming promise, shall give place to a graft of foreign extraction, whose grapes
"Like Dead Sea fruits, shall tempt the eye;
But turn to ashes on the lips;"
and whose poisonous luxuriance shall at length render sickly and unproductive all that remains of the original growth of the vine. In this opinion the opponents of "Oberlin theology" seem to concur. Like a skillful commander who discovers a strong post in the possession of the enemy, which must be carried, or the whole field lost, they have gradually abated the fury of their attack on other points, and concentrated their strongest forces, and turned their deadliest fire upon this. Our friends too are of the same mind, not a few of them having expressed a strong desire to see a more extended and thorough discussion of this subject than has hitherto been attempted. And in fact, any one can see at a glance, that while the great question, whether an action may be both right and wrong, remains unsettled, controversy on other questions growing out of it, though protracted endlessly, can lead us to no valuable results. They all presuppose, and must inevitably lead back to this question; just as all controversy in relation to passive regeneration, absolute decrees, election and reprobation presuppose, and when not mere dogmatizing and text-sparring, must lead back to the great question of the liberty of the human will. On the other hand, it is equally plain, that to settle this one question, is virtually to terminate all controversy along the whole line of its logical derivatives. Obtain a decision in favor of the simplicity of moral action, and you have laid the axe at the root of the opposite theory, and need give yourself no further trouble about its branches. Their speedy decay and
ultimate disappearance is inevitable. Obtain a decision in favor of the latter theory, and an equally certain and speedy mortality must seize upon all the ramifications of the former. Thus shall we despatch at a single blow all those points of difference to which we have already alluded together with many additional questions inseparably connected with the discussion of the doctrine of the attainability of sanctification in the present life, &c.
In the soundness of these views, we seek our only apology for bringing this subject once more before the public. And imposing upon the reader the task of deriving from the same source an answer to any objections he may feel to our course, and an explanation of the fact, that we have called him to the exercise of vigorous thought, rather than the pleasures of a literary banquet, we will now proceed to the discussion of the question at issue.
What then is moral action? A definition which shall fully answer this question, it is obvious, must include all the essential properties of moral action, and exclude every thing else. Nor will it be sufficient, in the present case, to satisfy our own mind, that we have discovered in books, or framed for ourselves such a definition. We must also satisfy our readers, and especially such as are opposed to the doctrine which we are advocating. Otherwise we cannot get their consent to employ it as an axiom in the process of the discussion, nor hope to produce a rational conviction of the truth of our deductions. Is there in our standard ethical writers, any definition of a moral action, the correctness and adequacy of which is acknowledged by both parties in this controversy? If we are to judge from the past, we are constrained to answer this question in the negative, or, at least, to conclude that there is none which has been strictly adhered to at all times. And, consequently, we are not entirely certain, that select whatever one we may, even though found in every treatise on moral philosophy extant, we shall encounter no opposition in making it the basis of our argument. But if there is no complete answer to this question, which has obtained universal approbation, is there not at least some partial one that has been thus fortunate? Are there not some qualities, which by universal consent of all moral philosophers and theologians, have been ascribed to a moral action? To answer this question in the negative, would be to cast "ominous conjecture" over the whole field of ethical inquiry, and to convict our present attempt, and every similar one, of madness, or presumption. From such a conclusion every truthful mind recoils with horror, and looks with instinctive hope to both speculation and fact, for one more welcome to the heart. Nor does it look in vain. All writers on morality and religion, who acknowledge the reality of moral agency and accountability, whether Pagan, or Christian, have concurred in the following account of a moral action.
1. It is an action, of which it can be rationally said, that it ought or ought not to be done. Or, which amounts to the same thing, it is an action which a moral agent may be justly required to do, or forbear doing.
2. It is an action, which when performed may, without a contradiction, be called right or wrong.
3. It is an action for which the agent is praise or blameworthy, and therefore justly deserving of reward or punishment. To these attributes we may add another point of universal agreement, which, although it does not, properly speaking, contain any part of the definition of a moral action, will, nevertheless, have some connection with our future inquiries: The very conception of a moral actions implies the existence of moral law, and a knowledge of that law, more or less perfect, and some kind of ability to render the obedience which it requires. This principle, however, it should be remarked, lies on the confines of disputed territory, and hence has obtained a very indefinite enunciation.
On this account of a moral action, we remark, 1. That it has not only met the approbation of philosophers and theologians, but has likewise obtained the perpetual and universal sanction of the human race, not even accepting those who have acknowledged no higher law of human conduct, than the impulse of sense. All who have ever translated their moral convictions into language or conduct have consciously and unconsciously to themselves, agreed in representing a moral action as required or prohibited, right or wrong, praise or blameworthy. 2. Nor has this universal agreement resulted from some fortunate accident, or any mere contingency. All these attributes are implied in the very conception of responsible agency, and this conception is as unavoidable as the development of the human intelligence. This agreement, therefore, is grounded in a necessity as absolute as the judgment that every event has a cause. 3. We may, hence, assume these attributes or qualities as axioms, or first principles in this discussion, not merely on the ground of our opponent's actual consent, but on the infinitely higher ground of his unavoidable consent, that is to say, on the ground of their absolute truth. Thus, by mutual agreement shall we make our starting point in the same conceptions, and if our logic be accurate in all its deductions, we must inevitably at length, be found on the same side of the great question before us. Moreover, since these conceptions are absolute truths, the conclusions at which we shall ultimately arrive, whatever it may be, must partake of the same character, and be worthy of a rational and undoubting conviction. 4. This account of a moral action, as we have already intimated, cannot with justice aspire to the title of an exact and adequate definition. It does not with sufficient clearness insulate a moral action from the whole complexus of mental and physical phenomena with which in consciousness and actual life, it is always blended, nor express with requisite precision, its own essential nature and properties to merit that high title. Yet it obviously implies such a definition, and a careful analysis cannot fail to evolve it. If this analysis shall be successfully completed, and the result be embodied in a concise expression, we shall not only have such a definition as we desire, but one in which both parties are compelled to agree. Let us now enter upon this analysis.
1. It follows, from these attributes of a moral action, that it must be a free, and not a necessary action. An action is free, when the agent that performed it, could at the same time, and in precisely the same circumstances, have done otherwise. An action is necessary when the agent at the same time of its performance, and in precisely the same circumstances, could not have done in any respect differently from what he actually did. Thus, when an incendiary has fired a building--if at the same time of his performing this deed, there was no possibility of his avoiding it, his act was a necessary action. If there was a possibility of avoiding it, it must be regarded as a free action. When the support is removed from a building, if there is any possibility of its remaining stationary in the atmosphere, rising upwards, or going in any other direction than towards the center of the earth, its motion in this last direction is a free action. If there is no possibility of motion in any other direction, this motion must be regarded as necessary. Another form may be given to this definition, which will exhibit more clearly its grounds, and make its application to particular phenomena more easy. Premising, that for every action in the universe there are two indispensable conditions, vis., 1, the existence of some energy or power to act, and 2, something else external to this power or energy, the influence of motives, the exertion of physical forces, or whatever else you please, that in some way becomes the occasion of its action, we may thus define the terms. When the external influences, whether they be motives or physical forces, which become the occasion of any action, so determine both its existence and all its qualities, that there is an impossibility of its not being or being at all different from what it is, this action, when referred to the power on which these influences operate, is called a necessary action. The reverse of this definition would be the definition of a free action. In the former case the external influences occasioning action, are also its cause, either wholly or in part; and the power to which it is immediately referred, is either a merely passive recipient of their causative influence, or a constrained partner in the production of a joint effect, there being, by supposition, no possibility of its avoiding this partnership, of the effect to which it gives existence. In the latter case, the influences occasioning action, are neither its sole cause, nor a joint cause in its production--the power itself on which they operate, bringing it forth from the bosom of its own inherent energy, and that too when equally able to do far otherwise. On the one hand, the action appears in the agent, as an effect of some cause out of itself, or as the unavoidable consequence of its correlation with such a cause; and before you have its whole history, you must trace it back through successive links of causation, perhaps to the throne of the Almighty. On the other hand, the originating cause of the action being none other than the power of which it is a phenomenon, in the inherent causality of this power, you have a full explanation of its existence and all its characteristics.
The terms liberty and necessity, as thus defined, are separated from one another by a barrier as high and impassable as mutual exclusion and perfect contradiction can create. It is the height of absurdity to suppose that any action can fall under both of them. To say of any act, that it is free, is the same thing as to say that it is not necessary, and to say that it is necessary, is the same as to say that it is not free. And this is equally true, whether that action be produced by "moral causes" or "natural causes," by mental or material, conscious or unconscious, rational or irrational, divine or human. Again, these definitions include all actions possible and conceivable. Whatever has, or can take place in the whole universe of matter or mind, must of necessity be either as avoidable or an unavoidable event, an action, free or necessary.
The question now arises, where shall we place a moral action? Does it belong to the category of freedom, or to that of necessity? To this we answer, that if you place it under the category of necessity, there is not a single mark of a moral action, that can be rationally applied to it. You can neither say of it, that it ought to be done, or that it ought not to be done, that it is right or wrong, or that the agent of it is deserving of either praise or blame, reward or punishment. So obvious is the truth of this proposition, that it may well be doubted, whether any well balanced mind unacquainted with the aberrations of necessitarian philosophy, would even suspect, that the opposite had ever been maintained. Nor, with the knowledge of this fact before us, can we avoid feeling, that the attempt to demonstrate it, borders closely upon the ludicrous. It seems to us like attempting to prove that 2 plus 2 cannot equal 6. Nevertheless, a proper respect for the many learned and truly pious men, who differ from us, requires that we should attempt this demonstration.
1. In the first place then, we remark, that if there be in the universe, no such thing as a free action, to say of any action whatever, that it ought not to have been done, is to say that an even ought to have been produced, for which there was no cause. If we ground the necessity of the actions of any agent wholly on influences external to himself, we flatly contradict ourselves in saying, that there is in the possession of that agent, any causative power to resist those influences, or do otherwise than at all times he actually does. It would be the same thing as to say, that external influences are the sole cause of the action, and that the agent is the sole cause of the action, or to affirm of the agent that he is both active and passive, and of the external influences that they are, and are not causative at one and the same time.
If we ground the necessity of the actions of any agent in the correlation of his constitutional susceptibilities, with surrounding circumstances, it is equally absurd and contradictory to say, that he has in possession any causative energy to do otherwise than he does. For if he had such energy his actions would not be necessary, but free; and this correlation would not be their necessitating ground, since, on the supposition that they are free, no such ground is conceivable.
Whatever we conceive to be the ground of the actions of any necessary agent, we cannot avoid contradicting ourselves if we say that the agent had any causative energy to avoid any act that he has performed. For if he had any such causative energy, his actions would not be necessary.
On the supposition therefore, that there is no such thing as free action in the universe, it is true of every agent, power, and faculty in existence, that they have in possession no causative power to do otherwise than they always actually do. Now it is a universal and necessary affirmation of reason, that no event can ever take place, for which there is not an adequate cause. Consequently, on the hypothesis of universal necessity, to say of any agent, that he ought to have avoided any act which he has performed, or performed any which he has avoided, is to say that he ought to have given actual matter of fact demonstration of the absurd proposition that an event can take place independently of any cause, in other words, that the most plain and positive affirmations of reason is a downright falsehood.
But we have not yet fathomed the depths of this absurdity. The necessitating cause of the actions of any finite agent, according to the supposition, is found either in influences wholly external to himself, or in the correlation of such influences with his constitutional susceptibilities. But these influences and this correlation did not create themselves; on the contrary, according to the theory of universal necessity, they had no hand in their own creation, and to be accounted for must be traced to some higher influences, correlation, or some other ground necessitating their existence. But when we have arrived at this ground, it as much needs to be explained as themselves, and so on till we are necessarily driven at length to the throne of the Almighty. We do not at present choose to inquire whether the theory of necessity would not compel us to go even farther back than this. We will here make an arbitrary pause, and contemplate for a moment every finite action as a link in a series of actions, which at length connect themselves to the causative power of the Deity. On this supposition, to require of any finite agent to do differently from what he does, is to require him to resist and overcome a causative influence derived from God, in other words, to resist and overcome Omnipotence itself! and that too when he cannot be conceived, without the greatest absurdity, to have in possession any causative energy adequate even to make the attempt! The theory, as we have just proved, does not allow us to suppose that any finite action is possible which is not virtually the action of that same Omnipotence which is to be overcome. Thus we have no cause at all bound to overcome an Omnipotent cause; an agent that can perform no action that is not virtually God's action, bound to perform one which is so far from being God's action, that the very object of its appearance in the world is to wage an exterminating war upon one or more of his actions; a merely passive instrument in the divine hand, that can move only where and as that hand moves, bound to move differently, and make successful resistance to the all-powerful will on whose volitions the movements of that hand depend!
Again, since on the hypothesis of universal necessity all actions of finite beings are only projections of God's actions; and consequently, since to require in any instance action different from what fact shall exhibit, is to require no cause to resist and overcome Omnipotence, there can be no greater absurdity in requiring one finite effect than another. For all alike suppose infinite power subdued; and no possible addition of the finite can make that conquest a whit more difficult. Hence on this hypothesis, we may as rationally be required to extinguish the volcanoes of the moon, or crush the rings of Saturn, as to pick up a pin, when we shall not do so, or turn aside a dagger from our neighbor's breast, when as a matter of fact it will reach his heart. Not to have indulged passion when we did indulge it, not to have lied, sworn, stolen, or committed murder when we did so, was just as impossible as to have created or blotted out a universe. Both infinitely transcend our ability or rather our no-ability, and, consequently, one can be required with no greater show of reason than the other.
Once more, as reason can find no ground for requiring of any finite agent an event however small, different from what fact shall exhibit, that will not be equally valid for requiring of the same agent any other event no matter how great; so it can find no ground for making the actions of one class of agents, and powers, the subject of requirement and prohibition, that will not also be valid for making the actions of all agents and powers in existence the subject of requirement and prohibition. For the supposition of action on the theatre of the material universe different from what we see, is no more absurd and contradictory to the hypothesis of universal necessity, than on the theatre of human consciousness, or amid the powers of animal life. Both alike set forth that absolute impotence subdues absolute Omnipotence. And hence we may as rationally affirm that the needle ought to point to the south pole, streams roll back upon their fountains, or stones, unsupported, remain in the air, as to say that a miser ought to be munificent, a cruel and relentless tyrant compassionate, or a selfish man benevolent. We may as well say that the lightning ought not to blast the mountain pine, or the volcano whelm the flourishing city; as to say that an avaricious and revengeful man ought not to plot the death of the unwary traveler, or the drunkard gratify his beastly appetite at the expense of his health, domestic felicity, and eternal salvation.
Now in the sacred name of reason, we ask, can such legislation come from the throne of infinite love and justice? Never! no, never! And should the staunchest necessitarian in the land, even though most venerable in years, and most noted for active benevolence and ardent piety, assure us on his solemn oath, that such is his firm belief, we should not hesitate a moment to say that he either did not understand the full import of his own words, or else was guilty of downright falsehood. What! believe that no cause can justly be required to subdue and omnipotent cause. It's a lie. In reason's name it's a lie. No sane man can any more believe such a proposition, than that two straight lines can enclose a portion of space.
It is just as plain that there can be no obligation to do what we shall do, or to forbear doing what we shall not do. For there is an impossibility as great as the difference between infinity and nothing can create that we should not comply with such obligation in all cases.
2. But where there is no obligation to perform a given act there can be nothing morally wrong in not performing it; and where there is no obligation not to perform a given act there can be no moral wrong in performing. For example:--If we are under no obligation to blot out a constellation from the zodiac, there can be no wrong in not doing it; and if we are under no obligation to stop the process of thinking, there can be no wrong in continuing it. But we have just proved that on the hypothesis of universal necessity, no finite being can be under obligation to perform any act which he does not perform, or to omit any which he does. Consequently no action of any created being can ever rationally be called a wrong action. Sin never has entered or can enter into the created universe, for no obligation therein ever has been or can be violated. We have also shown that there can be no obligation to do what absolute necessity compels, and hence it is further evident that no action appearing on the stage of the created universe can ever rationally be called right, for no obligation has ever been complied with.
Independently of this argument we might show by a process of reasoning entirely similar to that employed above, that if any action of any finite being is justly entitled to the epithet of right or wrong, on the same ground every other action of that same agent, and all acts of all created, or yet to be created agents, rational or irrational, conscious or unconscious are justly entitled to one or the other of the same epithets; and consequently, that the ravages of the whirlwind and sirocco are as high evidences of moral wrong, as the desolation of war and slavery; and the benignant influences of warming suns and fertilizing showers, refreshing breezes and balming fragrance, as well deserve the name of right, as the self-denying labors of St. Paul and John Howard.
3. Right and wrong--an obligatory rule obeyed or violated--are the necessary antecedents, and only rational basis of praise and blame, reward and punishment. And hence it is farther evident that, on the theory of universal necessity, no action whatever can render the agent deserving of either praise or blame, reward or punishment. The same conclusion might be established on independent grounds. It might be shown, that as the conception of the opposite of any act, according to this hypothesis necessarily involves the conception of an exertion produced without any causative energy, that shall prove more potent than the fiat of the Almighty; so to blame or punish any finite agent for performing or not performing any action, would be to blame and punish absolute impotence for not becoming the god of God, and giving demonstration of an impossibility and absurdity for which the ravings of lunacy can furnish no equal; that if the actions of any one created agent may be punished, so may the actions of every other be punished on the same ground; that if the least degree of punishment conceivable, may be inflicted in any case, the highest degree may as rationally be inflicted in the same case, and in any other case where there is a sensibility to prey upon; that consequently lions, tigers, and hyenas may be sent to as deep a hell for giving sanguinary indulgence to their natural propensities, as Nero and Caligula; that Voltaire may be as justly damned for not passing through the inane space that intervened between him and the planet Sirius, as for not believing on the Lord Jesus Christ; and a thousand other things equally shocking and monstrous.
But we cannot stop here. According to the hypothesis of universal necessity God himself is as destitute of any causative energy to do otherwise than he always does, as the meanest creatures of his power. And all his actions as well as theirs, must be traced to some higher ground necessitating their existence. What that higher ground may be, or whether there is not an absurdity involved in its very conception, it does not lie within our present design to inquire. Our only concern is with the conclusion that the theory of universal necessity furnishes us, viz; that the Deity, while he is the staple to which every chain of finite agency is connected, is also himself inseparably attached to absolute fatality. His actions therefore can no be a proper object of requirement or prohibition, *[We do not mean to intimate that there is any other being who may impose a law upon God. That were absurd. Yet his own Reason may, and in fact must. For otherwise he would not be a moral agent. Where there is no obligation, there can be no virtue or sin--and where there is no law, there can be no obligation.] of praise or blame than the actions of finite beings. Consequently, reason, when she instinctively veils here face in his presence and falls prostrate at his feet, in humble adoration and devout thanksgiving, is practicing a gross delusion upon herself. There is no possible basis for worship. God is neither holy nor unholy, for his conduct is neither right nor wrong. He is not deserving of praise, for he has done nothing praiseworthy. Consequently there is no basis for veneration, or thanksgiving, or room for the exercise of any sentiment connected with religious worship. The whole world of religion therefore is fallen away and lost; and with it all idea of moral government, of right and wrong of justice and injustice, of reward and punishment is torn away from the bleeding heart. God and all his creatures are the irresponsible slaves of super-omnipotent fate; and if they think themselves free and responsible, this is to be ascribed to a wild caprice of that same fatality. What an idea this of the moral universe! God, without any power of doing otherwise, when the period preordained by fate had fully come, "created the heavens and the earth;" made in his own image after his own likeness, a pair of happy rationals, and placed them in a delightful garden; conditioned their continuance in that garden, and the character and happiness of their unborn offspring upon abstinence from the fruit of a forbidden tree; soon after secured their transgression of this prohibition by the agency of a dark-minded demon that he had aforetime prepared for this very purpose; doomed this demon to "pains unfelt before," for his unavoidable agency or instrumentality in their temptation, and our unhappy progenitors to hard labor and sore travail and "the vengeance of eternal fire" for yielding to it, when there was an infinite impossibility of their doing otherwise; imposes upon mankind a law of universal and perfect love, and since our Mother Eve attempted to purchase knowledge by the price of faith and innocence, has made transgression in nine cases out of ten an unavoidable necessity; in each succeeding age of the world's history has brought into existence and nourished a host of slanderers, liars, thieves, murderers, oppressors and cruel tyrants, to prey upon mankind and one another; and then shuffled them off the stage of life into the pit of endless despair for unavoidably fulfilling their destiny; thinks himself holy when he has no moral character whatever; makes mankind think themselves free agents when the exact opposite is the truth,--under moral obligation when the thing is impossible and the word without a meaning; distracts them with vain ideas of right and wrong and torments them by the lashes of conscience, when its whole function may be resolved into officious folly and unmeaning cruelty; in a word, is himself a wild chaos of jarring attributes, and makes an unceasing and universal "hubbub wild" of contradiction, absurdity, and malignity. Blasphemy! horrible blasphemy! and yet a plain, unvarnished statement of necessitarian ethics.
Necessitarians have with much labor and a great deal of misapplied ingenuity, provided a sufficient number of evasions which they never fail to oppose to these troublesome consequences of their theory. We feel no little embarrassment in attempting to state these evasions in this place. For we are apprehensive that, however fairly we may do so, we shall not entirely escape the charge of misrepresentation. Placed in the light of the foregoing definitions and reasonings, and stript of their ambiguous covering, it will be difficult to introduce their execrable shapes to the reader, as the veritable mental offspring of learned and pious men whom the whole church delight and honor. On the other hand, if we pass them without notice, this neglect will be attributed to some lurking fear of their potency. We have no choice left us therefore but to state and reply to them.
That we may present them in all their force we will lay before the reader the leading distinctions on which they are founded.
1. They insist much on a distinction between "natural causes," and "moral causes." By natural causes they mean physical forces; by moral causes they mean motives, or "that which moves, excites, or invites the mind to volition." The strength of a motive, that is, its causative force, is its "tendency or advantage to move or excite the will, previous to the effect, or to the act of the will excited." This previous tendency is convertable with that which is capable of appearing most agreeable to the mind. The correlation of the strongest motive with the mind results in the "highest sense of the agreeable," which is the same thing as choice.
They hold as firmly as ourselves that no agent is responsible for any action which is the immediate effect of natural causes: for, say they, whether that agent be rational or irrational, those actions are produced either without or contrary to choice or volition, and so can never rationally be charged to his account. On the other hand they maintain, that an agent who has reason and conscience, and can distinguish what he ought from what he ought not to do, may justly be held responsible for all those acts which result immediately from the moral causes which influence him: for the good reason, they tell us, that all such actions are intelligently performed and perfectly voluntary. The agent unconstrained and unimpeded by any physical force, selects whatever end pleases him best, or rather, his being pleased with, and selecting an end are the same thing. Moreover, in selecting that end he knows whether his choice is required or prohibited by the moral law. And besides, if paralysis or any other contingency shall prevent the execution of any design, the agent is no less virtuous or vicious on that account; and if overmastering physical force shall thrust his hand into a neighbor's face, or urge it on the execution of some valuable deed, he incurs neither praise or censure thereby. In short, they say, nothing but intelligent and voluntary conduct of a moral agent can be the subject of moral character, and they ask with an air of triumph who can say less or more and speak truly? That this appears, to a superficial view, much like a true account of the matter, cannot be denied; and it is in consequence of this similarity, we have no doubt, that necessitarian ethics have so long held a place in the church and received the hearty patronage and support of her most learned and pious ministers. "A moral agent is held responsible only for his intelligent choices, and their unimpeded effects." All true enough. The advocate of absolute freedom could say the same thing. It is not strange then that the demon of necessity wrapped in this angel covering should have deceived the peasant and the philosopher alike for so many years. But the answer to a single question we think will doff this disguise:--Do these "voluntary acts of the moral agent intelligently performed" belong to the category of necessity, or do they not? To say that they do not, is to abandon the theory of universal necessity and take libertarian ground.. For this theory teaches that no different constitutional susceptibilities are possible in any case or at any time; that no different objects could have been correlated with them, or endowed with any other "previous advantage or tendency" to move desire; that no different "sense of the agreeable" or choice could have followed from this correlation; that no different volitions could have proceeded from this choice; that no different muscular action could have resulted from these volitions; and that no different views of duty, practical judgments, or exercise of consciousness were possible. The question, therefore, whether the causes of these "voluntary actions," thus systematically placed under the category of necessity, are natural or moral, is entirely unimportant; and the fact that they are voluntary, which means no more than that they are acts of what is called will, is equally unimportant. To suppose that any other choice was posible at any period during the life of any moral agent, than those which he has made, is to suppose that an event could have taken place for which there was no "moral cause," that is to say, since none but moral causes can produce choice, of which there was no cause at all. To say therefore that any such choice ought to have been made, is to shoulder all the monstrous absurdities which we have derived from the necessitarian theory--that no cause should produce and event--conquer omnipotence, &c. Then what is gained by the distinction? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It has relieved the matter of no difficulty, and has earned for itself no better title than that of shallow sophistry and ridiculous nonsense. Illustration seldom makes philosophical conceptions plainer. Yet we hope one may shed some more light upon the absurdity of the evasion under consideration. No one, not even the necessitarian himself, supposes that the ocean is responsible for those agitations on its surface, that strew its shore with wrecks, and prove oftentimes so fatal to human life and happiness. Let us suppose that this same ocean is endowed with such constitutional susceptibilities that the winds no longer roll up its mountain billows by virtue of physical force unconsciously exerted, but that the motion of these winds, in consequence of some previous tendency they have, excite wave-making desires in the ocean; that these desires either of themselves or by exciting a necessary vis volendi pass into or become waves; that there is a consciousness of all this wild operation; a knowledge of the mischief that may result from it, and a conviction that it is contrary to a supposed rule of duty. Now has the addition of this power of feeling or willing, and knowing made the ocean any more rationally a subject of moral obligation than it was before? If so, on what ground? "On this good ground," says the necessitarian, "that it now acts voluntarily and with the knowledge of what it ought to do." But let it be remembered that according to the scheme of necessity these winds and no others could blow upon these and no other constitutional susceptibilities; that no other wave-desires or wave-choices and waves could by any possibility ensue. It is just as absurd therefore to suppose that there should be in this case a wave less or more, containing a drop more or less of water, and resulting in any less destruction of life and property, than when the whole is the immediate result of physical law and agency; and the requirement that the ocean should preserve a perpetual calm is just as nonsensical. No unlike the evasion just examined is the following.
2. In order to decide upon the character of an action it is not necessary to know what kind of a cause produced it. What it is in itself is a sufficient basis of decision. Strange! Can the knowledge of an act be separated from that of the actor? To say that an action is intelligent, if our language means any thing, is to say that it is the action of an intelligent agent; to say that it is voluntary, is to say that it is the act of a voluntary agent; to say that it is free is to say that it is the act of a free agent; and, in general, whatever attribute you ascribe to an action, you do in fact ascribe the same to the actor. The essential characteristics of the one are derived from the other, and so are the accidents and fluctuating properties. To affirm the opposite, would be to say that an event could make a character for itself, which is absurd. Necessitarians themselves admit the pertinence of the inquiry, whether an agent be rational and voluntary. They would not praise or blame the action of a mad-man however seeming intelligent, nor would they praise or blame the action of an involuntary agent, however beneficial or injurious. Their proposition therefore if stated as an universal one, is false, since by their own showing it admits of at least two exceptions. And if it admits of these exceptions, on what ground can they say that in order to praise or blame an action, it does not concern us to know whether the agent is free or necessary? Their proposition is not only false, but its application is both arbitrary and ridiculous. Can it ever be thought a matter of no consequence in awarding praise or blame to an agent, to know whether it was perfectly possible, or infinitely impossible that he should have done differently? The fact is, the subterfuge confesses its own weakness and stabs itself to the heart.
3. There is another distinction equally frivolous, on which necessitarians ring perpetual changes. "An agent," say they, is naturally able to perform an action, when he has all the natural endowments to perform it, if he is disposed. He is naturally unable, when he has not such endowments. He is morally able to do an act when there are motives sufficient. He is morally unable, when there are not. Or thus, whatever an agent can perform, by the physical forces he can command, he is naturally able to perform; whatever he cannot perform by such forces, he is naturally unable to perform. Natural ability refers to the connexion between volitions and their sequents. Moral ability refers to the connexion between motives and volitions or choices. Supposing a right choice to exist, say they, nothing can hinder a man from serving God, for he has all the rational faculties to render that service, and consequently it may be justly required of him. Moral inability does not excuse from duty. Now let it be remembered that the obedience which the law requires, according to necessitarians themselves, is primarily nothing but choices of the will. The cause of this obedience is not the will, but according to their representation, motives are the sole cause of it. Their account, then, of moral ability and inability, amounts simply to this: where there are motives of sufficient potency to produce a choice, alias "the highest sense of the agreeable," the agent is able to experience that choice or sense of the agreeable; or, when there are causes of sufficient strength to produce an effect upon a passive agent, he is able to be affected. When there are no causes to produce an effect upon a passive agent, he cannot experience any effect. If we interpret their statements with some grains of allowance, and understand them as saying that the moral causes of choice or volition are found not solely in motives, but in the correlation of motives with the constitutional susceptibilities of the will, their theory would stand thus: when given motives in correlation with the will constitute the cause of a required effect, that effect can take place. When they constitute the cause of a different defect, the required effect cannot take place. The argument, therefore, by which they attempt to establish accountability, runs thus: if there were motives of sufficient strength to produce the state of will required by the moral law, exerting their influence at any time upon a moral agent, he could experience that state of will; therefore, when no such motives are operating upon him, he may justly be required to experience it. How convincing this reasoning! To fasten the conviction of its entire conclusiveness upon the reader's mind, we need hardly attempt to confirm it by mentioning this trifling collateral circumstance, that to require obedience where there is no moral cause to produce it, is to ask no cause at all, to throw off the superincumbent weight of omnipotent power, when it can act only as it is either directly or indirectly acted upon by that power. If a man were in Boston--to borrow an illustration from Prest. Mahan's excellent little work on the will--he would be so circumstanced, that he could obey the law; therefore, while in New York, and so circumstanced that obedience is an absolute impossibility, he may justly be required to render the same obedience which would be possible in Boston. The relation of a conversation that took place between a traveler and a professor of theology in ------. Theological Seminary, some time since, may throw some light upon necessitarian ethics.
Traveler.--Doctor, did I understand you to say in your lecture just delivered, that motives are not merely occasions of our choices, but truly and properly their causes?
Doctor.--Such is my belief; and I think I can show you in a few minutes, that my belief is well founded.
T.--I would be sorry to put you to so much trouble. I only wish to understand your theory. Will you permit me then, to enquire further, whether you suppose the will to have any power of contingent choice?
D.--Certainly, else it would have a power of acting independently of motives, which amounts to the absurdity of saying, that an effect can take place for which there is no cause.
T.--If, therefore, there be ninety-nine motives of any given strength adapted to produce a sinful choice, conjointly operating upon the will, and only one of the same strength contracting their influence, is not sin an unavoidable necessity, and the imputation of its guilt a ridiculous absurdity?
D.--I would not say, that the agent necessarily sins, but that he only certainly sins.
T.--Why this distinction?
D.--Because the agent, if placed in different circumstances, could do differently, with the same material powers he now possesses.
T.--But he is not in other circumstances, and the question presses, could he do differently in these circumstances which now surround him? to which question your theory allows you to return but one answer. Besides, the will is not the only power which is capable of exhibiting different phenomena, according to its different correlations. A piece of wood, for example, if exposed to the action of fire in the presence of atmospheric air, becomes smoke and ashes. The same piece of wood, had it been cast into a certain lake in Ireland, would have turned to a stone. The phenomena of the will, therefore, and of the wood, are alike necessary, or certain. Your theory allows of no distinction, and you may as well require the wood when exposed to the action of fire to become a hone, as to require the will, when exposed to the action of sinful lusts, to exercise supreme love to God. We will not make any further detail of the conversation, or notice any other phase of their theory. Nor is it necessary. For if no phenomenon be free, whatever plea be made for morality must, when stripped of ambiguity, be found to involve all the absurdities of the necessitarian theory above noticed.
We are not in strictness concerned in this place, to prove, that the theory of universal necessity is false, but only to show, that if it be true, there can be no such thing as a moral action. Or we might show, that it denies the validity of our idea of contingency; that it can give no explanation of the origin of the idea of liberty: that since the highest sense of the agreeable, and choice, are identical, the position, that the will is as the highest sense of the agreeable, is a mere truism; that the strength of motive is proved by the choice of the will, and the choice of the will by the strength of the motive; that it resolves all voluntary human conduct into the strongest desire and its sequents, and consequently makes self-denial impossible, and obliterates all distinction in genere between the conduct of the righteous and the wicked; that the regeneration and sanctification of a soul differs not essentially from the operations of the laboratory; that all things are alike wise and good, or nothing is either; that no place is left for the conception of will at all; that, consequently, all the changes of the universe are resolvable into the operation of physical law: and consequently, again, that material pantheism, and even atheism, are the inevitable finale of its absurdities. For a similar reason, we will pass unnoticed a number of objections which are commonly urged against the theory of freedom.
From what we have proved, we derive the following corollaries: 1. If any agent have any number of faculties in his possession, some of which are free, and some of which are necessary, he is accountable only for the actions of those which are free. Even when the free powers conditionate in part the phenomena of those which are necessary, and when the existence or non-existence of these phenomena may prove him innocent or guilty, the innocence or guilt must be predicated, of the conditionating act, and not of the conditioned act; or, which amounts to the same thing, a responsible relation cannot be established between the necessary powers and their sequents, but only between the free powers, and their intended, and not intended sequents.
2. If any action of a free power be of such a nature, that it necessitates the existence and qualities of a series of dependent actions, responsibility can be predicated only of that necessitating action.
II. It is evident from what we have just said that no phenomena of the sensibility can be a moral action. By the sensibility we mean the power or susceptibility of feeling, desire, emotions and sensations. The conditions of its exercise are certain changes of the body, the conscious exercise of thought, together with the attitude of the will. When these conditions are supplied, its phenomena arise and all their qualities are determined by a law of absolute necessity. A few examples will make evident the truth of this position. If we thrust our hand into a solution of ice and snow, and our attention be not wholly engrossed with something else, the sensibility must be affected, and the sensation it experiences, must be different in kind from that which results from plunging the same hand into a vessel of warm water. If at the same time the right hand be laid on ice and the left on a heated iron, we must of necessity experience a painful sensation in both--and the sensations experienced must be totally unlike. Contemplate if you please, the falls of Niagara, the ocean during a storm, or some majestic mountain pavillioned in clouds, or robed in a mantle of nature's richest green--and it is needless to say you must feel, and equally so to tell you that the emotions you experience are essentially and necessarily unlike those which arise from the contemplation of a reeking charnel house, or even an unadorned and unvariegated landscape. Read a letter from a friend telling you that your best, perhaps your only beloved, has met an untimely death and now lies sleeping in "the cold silent night of the grave." The unbidden tear that trembles on your eye-lid, attests the existence of deep and irrepressible sorrow in the wounded heart. After these emotions have subsided read another from an old acquaintance containing the pleasing information that he has settled upon you a life-long annuity of five thousand dollars, as a token of the affection with which your social qualities and many virtues had inspired him. No sorrow now dims your eye. And even if any tears are there they radiate a more cheerful light than do those which flow in memory of the dead. Examples of this nature might be multiplied indefinitely. But the few we have already presented must make it evident to the reader, that there is a fixed and necessary relation established between the phenomena of the sensibility and the influences to which it is exposed.
It is true however that the same external object may not equally affect all who contemplate it. A monumental bust for example, may recall to one the sweetest joys that innocence ever cast into the lap of love and friendship, and the saddest hour that ever weighed down the human heart. In another it may awaken only recollections of shame and guilt. To a third it may have no higher interest than symbols of man's mortality always awaken in the thoughtful mind. While to a fourth it may be an object of almost total indifference. But this is no objection to the position which we maintain. For although the same external object is before the eye of each of the persons supposed, by no means the same thoughts are present to their consciousness; and consequently their respective sensibilities are no more exposed to the action of the same influences than if they were looking upon objects entirely dissimilar.
It is also conceivable that the power of feeling itself is very dissimilar in different persons. And if this be the case, the very same influences acting upon a thousand different sensibilities may be followed by as many different intensities of feeling. But this affords not the slightest evidence that feeling is not in every instance the necessary result of the correlation of the sensibility with these external influences.
We may add still further that although there are many conditional causes of feeling over which we have little or no control, yet there are an innumerable multitude to which we may expose ourselves or from which we may withdraw ourselves as we choose; and so are able to a very great extent to regulate the flow of our own sensitive phenomena. But this no more militates against our position than the seeming objections already examined. The phenomena of the sensibility as necessarily arise from its correlation with external influences when that correlation is fixed in part by our own will, as when it is established wholly independently of our agency. It is just as impossible in the one case as in the other, that those phenomena should not arise, or be in any respect different from what they actually are. No unanswerable objection can be brought against us till it is shown that the power of feeling in a given number of persons is exactly equal, that all the influences to which it is exposed at any given time--including the constitution and states of the body--the attitude of the will in respect to God and all his creatures--the force of attention--and all the phenomena of the intelligence--are precisely similar, and yet, that some of them have intense feelings and others none at all, or that their feelings are essentially unlike--or at least that they vary in intensity, though not unlike in kind. If any one of these can be made out the falsity of our position is clearly demonstrated. For the sensibility must then be allowed to possess a self-determining power and have as high claims to freedom as the will itself--a conclusion to which both the consciousness and experience of mankind give the lie. The whole controversy then may be presented in this brief dilemma. Either the sensibility is the sole and self-determining cause of its own phenomena, or it is not. If it is, the plainest testimony of human consciousness cannot be relied on, and all our intellections are "such stuff as dreams are made of." If it is not, none of its phenomena can be free, whatever be the occasion of their development.
"Why then," it may be asked, "if no phenomena of the sensibility are free, and so cannot be regarded as moral actions, do we hear it so often said, "We ought or ought not to feel so and so"-- "Such feelings are highly commendable or deserving of the severest censure? These surely are attributes of a moral action."
The objection, it must be confessed, at first sight, has a formidable appearance. But a little discrimination will show that it is entirely harmless. We have already shown that, to a very considerable extent, we have the control of the conditions on which our feelings depend. We can thus indirectly create and continue such feelings as are found friendly to virtue and general happiness, and refuse existence to those of a different character. Now, it is a maxim of common sense, that we may justly be held responsible for any effect to which, by our voluntary agency, we may directly or indirectly give existence. Thus a bully who with knife and pistol in hand makes his way through a dense crowd is held responsible if any injury result from those weapons, because that effect can be traced back by successive links to his voluntary agency. And, in general, men are held responsible for the effects of all powers, susceptibilities, and instrumentalities which are subject to their own control. It is therefore plain that we are accountable for all the phenomena of the sensibility whose external occasions we can supply. But the question arises where is the ground of that responsibility? Is it based upon any self-determining power of the sensibility itself? If so, it is based upon a dream, for we have already shown that it has no such power. And if it has no such power, you might as well make the bowie knife and pistol responsible for the wounds they inflict, as to establish a responsible relation between the sensibility and its phenomena. The fact is this responsibility is based solely on our power to control the causes of our feeling. And we must abandon our common sense, reverse all the principles we have laid down and the conclusions which they warrant, before we can place it any where else.
While, therefore, it is true that feelings of a given class, may prove the existence of sin the conclusion that the sensibility itself is capable of sinning, is as "lame and impotent," as the conclusion that a knife or gun is capable of sinning, because their murderous inflictions are evidence of criminal negligence or malicious intention. We have dwelt thus long on this subject, because in so high authority as Prest. Edwards the sensibility and will are confounded, and the phenomena of both are alike denominated moral actions. And nothing is more common than to hear persons who deservedly hold a place among the learned, speak of their "good feelings" or "bad feelings," as though they really believed that feeling in itself could be morally good or evil.
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