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WHETHER VIRTUE AND VICE BELONG ONLY TO ACTIONS.
Moral acts are complex. IT has repeatedly been brought into view that moral qualities are found only in actions of moral agents, and not in all actions, but only in those performed under certain circumstances. But when we consider those actions which are of a moral nature, we find that they are complex, consisting of an external and internal part. At once we can determine that a mere external or corporeal action can possess no morality, except as connected with the internal or mental exercise which produced it, and of which it is the exponent. But here again there are several acts of the mind clearly distinguishable from one another, and it is of importance to determine in which of these the moral quality exists. On 200this subject there is a diversity of opinion. It seems commonly to be taken for granted, that the act bf volition is, so to speak, the responsible act, and this has led to the maxim almost universally current, that “no action is of a moral nature which is not voluntary.” Moral acts voluntary. Accordingly, writers of great eminence have entertained the opinion, that to render our desires and affections moral, they must directly or indirectly proceed from volition. But here arises a serious difficulty. Our desires and affections are not subject to our volitions. Desires not subject to volition. We may will with all our energy to love an object now odious, and our will produces no manner of effect; except to show us our inability to change our affections by the force of the will. On the contrary, we find by constant experience that our volitions are influenced uniformly by our prevailing desires. No man ever put forth a volition which was not the effect of some desire, feeling, or inclination. Now, after the most attentive examination of our minds, we find that certain affections which 201are neither produced by volitions nor terminate in volitions, are, in the judgment of all reflecting men, of a moral nature. Yet desires have moral quality. For example, envy at the prosperity of a neighbour is not the result of any volition, and it may be cherished inwardly without leading to any volition, the will being controlled by other feelings which prevent action; yet all must admit it to be a morally evil disposition. The truth then appears to be, that our affections are properly the subject of moral qualities, good and evil. Whence volition has its quality. Volitions take their character entirely from the internal affections or desires from which they proceed. The volition, viewed abstractly, is always the same, when the external action is the same; but the moral character of the acts, where the volitions are the same, may vary exceedingly. If I will to strike a man with a deadly weapon, the simple volition which precedes and is the immediate cause of the action, is the same whether I give the stroke in self-defence, in execution of the law, or through malice prepense. Indeed, 202the volition of an insane person to strike a blow is exactly similar to the volition of a sane person striking a similar blow. Hence it is evident that the proper seat of moral qualities is not in the will, considered as distinct from the affections, but in the affections themselves, which give character to the volition as much as to the external action. The true spring of actions. These internal affections or desires are properly the springs of our actions, and our wills are the executive power by which they are carried into effect. They are commonly called motives, and very properly, as they move us to action; Motives. but I have avoided the use of that word, because it is ambiguous, and has occasioned much misconception on this subject. By motives, many understand reasons or external qualities in the objects of our desires; that which excites or moves our affections. Then when it is asserted that the will is governed by the strongest motives, some understand the meaning to be the strongest reasons, or those qualities in an object best adapted to excite our 203affections. In this sense the proposition is not true. Whether governed by the strongest reasons. Minds are often in such a state that they are not governed by that reason which in their own view is the strongest; that is, which in their better judgment seems wisest and best. And often our minds are not influenced or governed by those external objects or considerations which in the judgment of impartial reason are most weighty. In what sense will follows the strongest motives. But if by motives be understood the desires themselves, actually in exercise at the time, however produced, then it may be truly said that the will is always determined by the strongest motives, that is, the strongest desires. But even this proposition needs qualification. The strongest single desire does not always govern the man, but the strongest combination of desires, as may be thus exemplified. A man in returning from a journey on a cold day has a strong desire to reach home without delay; but passing a house where he knows he can enjoy a warm fire, and good refreshment, and the company of a friend, though 204his desire to reach home is stronger than his de. sire to see his friend, stronger than his desire to enjoy the fire, or his desire for food or drink, yet all these combined prove sufficient to induce him to stop.
Morality of an act from its intention. It is often said that the intention or end for which an action is performed, determines its moral character; and as our desires always point to some object which is the end of the action, this account of the matter coincides with the view already given. As if a man gives money to another, though we see the action, and are sure that it was voluntary, yet that determines nothing respecting the moral character of the action. Before we can judge any thing correctly, we must know the intention with which the act was performed. If it was to pay a just debt, we approve it as a moral act, but of small merit. If it was to supply the wants of a poor suffering family, unable to help themselves, we still approve, but our approbation is much stronger; the act is more meritorious than the former. But if we are informed that the person on whom the 205benefit was conferred was an enemy who had sought every opportunity to injure him who is now his benefactor, we esteem it the highest degree of Christian virtue. But if it should appear that the money was given to a common drunkard, to enable him to procure intoxicating drink; though the external act and volition are the same, instead of approving the action, we censure it as culpable. And finally, if it should appear that the intention was to hire an assassin to murder an innocent person, and that person a benefactor, our emotion rises to the highest degree, and we reprobate the action as evil in the extreme. In all these cases, the action and the volition producing it, are the same. The only difference is in the end or intention with which it was done. The assertion qualified. The intention will serve to characterize actions very well, but is not comprehensive enough to take in all the exercises of mind which possess a moral character. I feel habitually a kind disposition to my fellow-creatures, but for much of my time I have not the opportunity of performing any particular acts of kindness. 206All impartial persons will say that this habitual feeling is of a virtuous character; but there is no intention in the case. It is merely a feeling which terminates in no volition or action.
Intention not comprehensive enough. My neighbour, who has been a bad man, undergoes a real change of character, and from being profane and quarrelsome, becomes pious and peaceable. I rejoice in the change. This joy is a virtuous emotion, though it has no intention accompanying it. This will serve to show that making the intention the sole characteristic of morality, is correct in regard to actions, but is not comprehensive enough to take in the whole of morality.
Objection. It may seem that in what has been said, we contravene the maxim, that all moral actions are voluntary, a maxim which has received the sanction of ages, and may be considered an intuitive principle: whereas it is now maintained that there are exercises of mind which do not involve any exercise of will; and that our volitions themselves have 207nothing of a moral nature but what they derive from the motives from which they proceed.
The maxim admitted. The maxim, rightly understood, is no doubt just, and we should never affect the wisdom of being wiser than the common sense of mankind, where we meet with truths in which all men of sober reflection have been agreed. It is safer to take them for granted, as believing that universal consent in such matters furnishes the best evidence of truth.
The objection removed. But the explanation is easy. The maxim applies primarily to actions, which must be voluntary to have the character of morality. If the action is not voluntary, it is not properly the action of the person who seems to perform it, for we can act in no other way than by the will.
Ambiguity of term voluntary. But again, the word voluntary as employed in the maxim under consideration, includes more than volition; it comprehends all the spontaneous exercises of the mind; that is, all its affections and emotions. Formerly all these were included 208under the word will, and we still use language that requires this latitude in the construction of the term. Scholastic acceptation of Will. Thus it would be consonant to the best usage to say that man is perfectly voluntary in loving his friend or hating his enemy; but by this is not meant that these affections are the effect of volition, but only that they are the free spontaneous exercises of the mind. That all virtue consists in volition, is not true—as we have seen; but that all virtuous exercises are spontaneous, is undoubtedly correct. Our moral character radically consists in our feelings and desires. These being the spontaneous actings of certain latent principles or dispositions, this hidden disposition is also judged to be morally evil, because it is productive of such fruit. And of good dispositions we judge in like manner.209
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