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CHAPTER VII.

MORAL OBLIGATION.

Obligation. MUCH has been written to explain the true ground of moral obligation. But the subject has been rather darkened and perplexed than elucidated, by these comments. It is always so when men undertake to explain that which is so clear that it needs no explanation.

Included in every idea of morality. Every idea of morality includes in it that of moral obligation. A moral act is one which ought to be performed; an immoral act, is one which ought not to be performed. As soon as we get the conception of a moral act, we receive with it the idea of moral obligation. It would be a contradiction to say that any act was moral, and yet that there was no obligation to perform 49it. What a moral act is. One of the best definitions which can be given of a moral act, is that it is an act which we are bound to perform, and of an immoral act, that it is one which ought not to be done. The more clearly we see any thing to be moral, the more sensibly we feel ourselves under a moral obligation to perform it. This being a matter of common intuition, and universal experience, all that is necessary to convince us of its truth, is to bring it distinctly before our minds. There is therefore no need to look any further for the grounds and reasons of moral obligation, than to the morality of the act itself, as this idea is involved in every conception of morality.

Why we are obliged to do right—not to be asked. The following citation from Dr. Price’s work on Morals, is in accordance with the view just given: “From the account given of obligation, it appears how absurd it is to inquire, what obliges us to practise virtue? as if obligation were no part of the idea of virtue, but something adventitious and foreign to it: that is, as if what was our duty might not be our duty; as if it might 50not be true, that what is fit to do, we ought to do, and that what we ought to do, we are obliged to do. To ask why we are obliged to practise virtue, to abstain from what is wicked, or perform what is just, is the very same as to ask why we are obliged to do what we are obliged to do. It is not possible to avoid wondering at those who have so unaccountably embarrassed themselves, on a subject that one would think was attended with so little difficulty: and who, because they cannot find any thing in virtue and duty themselves, which can induce and oblige us to pay a regard to them—fly to self-love, and maintain that from hence alone are derived all inducement and obligation.” Answer of Archdeacon Paley. Dr. Paley commences his second book on Moral Philosophy, by an inquiry into the nature of moral obligation. He asks, “Why am I obliged to keep my word?” and mentions several answers which would be given by different persons, and which he says all coincide. But he goes on to say that all the answers leave the matter short; for the inquirer may turn round upon his 51teacher with a second question, “Why am I obliged to do what is right, to act agreeably to the fitness of things, to conform to reason, nature or truth, to promote the public good, or to do the will of God?”

Insufficient. All this, it appears to us, is fitted to mystify as plain a subject as ever engaged the thoughts of a rational mind, and is designed to remove the true ground of moral obligation, and reduce all such obligation to the single principle of self-love, or the tendency of an act to promote individual happiness.

The inquiry unreasonable. Suppose then, after Dr. Paley had made all obligation to rest on the ground that the performance of a good act promotes our eternal happiness, the inquirer should again ask, “Why am I bound to perform that which will promote my happiness?” The question, indeed, would be unreasonable, because all men are agreed that happiness is a good; but is it not equally unreasonable, when an action is seen to be virtuous, or morally right, to ask “Why am I obliged to 52do it?” The moment we see a thing to be morally right, the sense of obligation is complete, and all further inquiring for reasons why I am obliged to do right is as absurd as would be inquiring for reasons why I should pursue happiness.

Intuitive certainty is ultimate. Where we have intuitive certainty of any thing it is foolish to seek for other reasons. If there is any thing clear in the view of a rational mind, it is this: that virtue should be practised, that what is right should be done. But still further to perplex this plain subject, Dr. Paley has undertaken to inform us what is meant by obligation. “A man,” says he, “is said to be obliged when he is urged by a violent motive resulting from the will of another.”

Paley’s definition. This is, indeed, a very extraordinary definition. The motive, he says, must be violent; but what should hinder that a motive not violent should create an obligation according to its force? The main error of this definition is that it confounds moral obligation with other motives of 53an entirely different kind. The obligation of which he speaks, is created by the will or command of another. The law of a tyrant requiring his subjects to do what is evidently wrong cannot create a moral obligation. A rational being may be urged by the threats of a tyrant, on the universal principle of self-love, and this force may, by an abuse of terms, be called an obligation; but according to the common usage of the language, when a man is said to be under obligation to perform an act, we mean that he is morally bound. But whether the operation of any violent motive, resulting from the will of another, may be said to oblige a man or not, the main inquiry is, what is the ground of moral obligation? The difference between a moral obligation and other motives which may oblige should be kept in view.

Paley’s account of obligation. He then returns to the question, “Why am I obliged to keep my word?” and applies the preceding definition of the nature of obligation, and gives the following answer: “Because I am urged to do so by a violent motive (namely, the expectation 54of being after this life rewarded if I do, or punished if I do not), resulting from the command of another (namely, of God).” He goes on to say, “When I first turned my attention to moral speculations, an air of mystery seemed to hang over the whole subject, which arose, I believe, from hence; that I supposed with many authors whom I had consulted that to be obliged to do a thing, was different from being induced to do it; and that the obligation to practise virtue, and to do what is justice, is quite another thing and of another kind from the obligation which a soldier is under to obey his officer, or a servant his master, or any of the ordinary obligations of human life.”

Erroneous. We cannot but be of the opinion that Dr. Paley has here made a radical mistake, which it is exceedingly important to consider, since, unhappily for sound morals, his system is so much employed in the instruction of youth.

The theory of morals, of which the above principle is a part, is no other than this: that the only difference between virtue and vice, consists 55in their tendency, respectively, to promote or hinder the happiness of the individual; Paley’s scheme of morals. so that if a man could persuade himself that no evil would arise to him from telling a lie, he would be under no obligation to speak the truth. It is a scheme of morals which obliterates all intrinsic difference between virtue and vice, and makes the one preferable to the other on no other account than its tendency to promote individual happiness in the future world.

Difficulties of the hypothesis. If a man does not believe in a future world, he can, according to this theory, feel no obligation to keep his word. We believe, on the contrary, that moral obligation is felt by the atheist, and that he cannot divest himself of it. When men are tempted by some strong motive to deviate from the truth, and yet are enabled to resist the temptation, there is in most cases no distinct consideration of any future good to be gained by it, but the man feels himself under an obligation to do that which is in itself right. The conflict is not between a greater and a less 56happiness, but between the prospect of happiness and moral obligation.

On this subject, the appeal must be to the common judgment of men. And we are persuaded that this confounding of moral obligation with motives of another kind, is a radical defect in Dr. Paley’s system, which—lying at the foundation—vitiates the whole, and has already been the cause of great evil to society.

True doctrine stated. The true doctrine is, that virtue and vice are distinct and opposite, and that when we know any act to be right, we are bound—aside from all considerations of self-interest—to perform it.

The opposite doctrine. Dr. Paley maintains that “we can be obliged to nothing, unless we are to lose or gain something by it, for nothing else can be a ‘violent motive’ to us. And as we should not be obliged to obey the laws or the magistrate, unless rewards or punishments, pleasure or pain, somehow or other depended on our obedience; so neither should we, without the same reason, be obliged to do 57what is right, to practise virtue, or to obey the command of God.”

Virtue thus made mercenary. According to this view, unless a man is persuaded that he shall gain something by keeping his word, he is under no obligation to do it. Even if God should clearly make known his will, and lay upon him his command, he is under no obligation to obey, unless certain that he shall receive benefit by so doing. This is, indeed, to make virtue a mercenary thing, and reduce all motives to a level. And as self-love, or the desire of happiness, is the only rational motive, and all men possess this in a sufficient degree of strength, the only conceivable difference between the good and the bad, consists in the superior sagacity which the one has above the other to discern what will most contribute to happiness. And if what we call vice or sin could be made to contribute to happiness, then it would change its nature and become virtue.

Paley’s definition obscure. The definition of obligation, given by Dr. Paley, upon his own principles, is unnecessarily encumbered with what adds nothing to its import. 58Why should the “violent motive” result from the command of another? The command of another ought to have no influence, except as obedience or disobedience will be attended with loss or gain. It would, therefore, have been more simple and intelligible to say at once, what is certainly implied, that the only motive which can oblige us to be virtuous, is the expectation of the happiness to be derived from such conduct in the future world.

The honestum and the utile. Cicero, in his work “De Finibus,” says that those men who confounded the honestum with the utile, deserved to be banished from society. The result of the whole scheme is, that there is no such thing as moral excellence, abstractly considered; that the only good in the universe is happiness; and that other things, among which virtue is included, are good only as related to this end. If this is true, the moral attributes of God have no intrinsic excellence; they are all merged in his infinite felicity. Surely this view 59is not suited to increase our reverence for the Supreme Being.

Appeal to primary ideas. But every man who carefully examines into his own primary ideas of morality, will find that he has a sense of right and wrong, independent of all considerations of personal happiness, or its loss. This distinction is too deeply engraven on the mind to be erased by any process of reasoning.

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