« Prev Lecture IV. Foundation of Moral Obligation. Next »
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LECTURE IV.

FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION.

In the discussion of this question, I will first state what is intended by the foundation, or ground, of obligation.

I shall use the terms ground and foundation as synonymous. Obligation must be founded on some good and sufficient reason. Be it remembered, that moral obligation respects moral action. That moral action is voluntary action. That properly speaking, obligation respects intentions only. That still more strictly, obligation respects only the ultimate intention. That ultimate intention or choice, which terms I use as synonymous, consists in choosing an object for its own sake, i. e. for what is intrinsic in the object, and for no reason that is not intrinsic in that object. That every object of ultimate choice must, and does, possess that in its own nature, the perception of which necessitates the rational affirmation, that it ought to be universally chosen, by moral agents, for its own sake, or, which is the same thing, because it is what it is, or, in other words still, because it is intrinsically valuable and not on account of its relations.

The ground of obligation, then, is that reason, or consideration, intrinsic in, or belonging to, the nature of an object, which necessitates the rational affirmation, that it ought to be chosen for its own sake. It is that reason, intrinsic in the object, which thus creates obligation by necessitating this affirmation. For example, such is the nature of the good of being that it necessitates the affirmation, that benevolence is a universal duty.

I will next call attention to some points of general agreement, and some principles essentially self-evident.

1. In the most strict and proper sense, moral obligation extends to moral actions only.

2. Strictly speaking, involuntary states of mind are not moral actions.

3. Intentions alone are, properly, moral actions.

4. In the most strict and proper sense, ultimate intentions alone are moral actions, ultimate intention being the choice of an object for its own sake, or for what is intrinsic in the object.

5. While, in the strictest sense, obligation respects only the ultimate intention, yet, in a less strict and proper sense, obligation extends to the choice of the conditions and means of securing an intrinsically valuable end, and also to executive acts put forth with design to secure such end: Hence there are different forms of obligation; for example, obligation to 28put forth ultimate choice—to choose the known necessary conditions and means—to put forth executive volitions, etc.

6. These different forms of obligation must have different conditions. For example, moral agency, including the possession of the requisite powers, together with the development of the ideas of the intrinsically valuable, of obligation, of right and wrong, is a condition of obligation in its universal form, namely, obligation to will the good of being in general, for its own sake; while obligation to will the existence of the conditions and means to the end, or to put forth executive efforts to secure the end, have not only the conditions above named, but obligation in these forms must be conditional, also, upon the knowledge that there are conditions and means, and what they are, and also that executive efforts are necessary, possible, and useful.

7. The well-being of God, and of the universe of sentient existences, and especially of moral agents, is intrinsically important, or valuable, and all moral agents are under obligation to choose it for its own sake. Entire, universal, uninterrupted consecration to this end, or disinterested benevolence is the duty of all moral agents.

8. This consecration is really demanded by the law of God, as revealed in the two great precepts laid down by Christ, and this benevolence, when perfect, is in fact a compliance with the entire spirit of the law. This is right in itself, and consequently is always duty and always right, and that in all possible circumstances; and, of course, no obligation inconsistent with this can ever, in any case, exist. Reason and revelation agree in this; that the law of benevolence is the law of right, the law of nature, and no moral law, inconsistent with this, can exist.

9. Holiness, or obedience to moral law, or, in other words still, disinterested benevolence, is a natural, and of course necessary condition of the existence of that blessedness which is an ultimate or intrinsic good to moral agents, and ought to be chosen for that reason, i. e., that is a sufficient reason. Of course, the ground of obligation to choose holiness, and to endeavor to promote it in others, as a condition of the highest well-being of the universe, is the intrinsic nature of that good or well-being, and the relation of holiness to this end is a condition of the obligation to choose it, as a means to this end.

10. Truth, and conformity of heart and life to all known and practical truths, are conditions and means of the highest good of being. Of course, the obligation to conform to such truths is universal, because of this relation of truth, and of conformity to truth, to the highest good. The intrinsic value of the good must be the ground, and the relation only a condition, of the obligation.

11. God’s ultimate end, in all he does, or omits, is the highest well-being 29of himself, and of the universe, and in all his acts and dispensations, his ultimate object is the promotion of this end. All moral agents should have the same end, and this comprises their whole duty. This intention or consecration to this intrinsically and infinitely valuable end, is virtue, or holiness, in God and in all moral agents. God is infinitely and equally holy in all things, because he does all things for the same ultimate reason, namely, to promote the highest good of being.

12. All God’s moral attributes are only so many attributes of love or of disinterested benevolence; that is, they are only benevolence existing and contemplated in different relations. Creation and moral government, including both law and gospel, together with the infliction of penal sanctions, are only efforts of benevolence to secure the highest good.

13. He requires, both in his law and gospel, that all moral agents should choose the same end, and do whatever they do for its promotion; that is, this should be the ultimate reason for all they do. Consequently, all obligation resolves itself into an obligation to choose the highest good of God, and of being in general, for its own sake, and to choose all the known conditions and means of this end, for the sake of the end.

14. The intrinsic value of this end is the ground of this obligation, both as it respects God and all moral agents in all worlds. The intrinsic value of this end rendered it fit, or right, that God should require moral agents to choose it for its own sake; and of course, its intrinsic value, and not any arbitrary sovereignty, was, and is, his reason for requiring moral agents to choose it for its own sake.

15. Its known intrinsic value would, of itself, impose obligation on moral agents to choose it for its own sake, even had God never required it; or, if such a supposition were possible, had he forbidden it. Thus, disinterested benevolence is a universal and an invariable duty. This benevolence consists in willing the highest good of being, in general, for its own sake, or, in other words, in entire consecration to this good as the end of life. The intrinsic value of this good does, of its own nature, impose obligation upon all moral agents to will it for its own sake, and consecrate the whole being, without intermission, to its promotion.

Thus it is self-evident that moral character belongs to the ultimate intention, and that a man’s character is as the end for which he lives, and moves, and has his being. Virtue consists in consecration to the right end, the end to which God is consecrated. This end is, and must be, by virtue of its own nature, the ground of obligation. That is, the nature of this end is such as to compel the reason of every moral agent to affirm, that it ought to be chosen for its own sake. This end is the good of being, and therefore disinterested benevolence, or good will, is a universal duty.

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Now, with these facts distinctly kept in mind, let us proceed to the examination of the various conflicting and inconsistent theories of the ground of obligation.

Of the Will of God as the ground of obligation.

I will first consider the theory of those who hold that the sovereign will of God is the ground, or ultimate reason, of obligation. They hold that God’s sovereign will creates, and not merely reveals and enforces, obligation. To this I reply:

1. That moral law legislates directly over voluntary action only—that moral obligation respects, primarily and strictly, the ultimate intention—that ultimate intention consists in choosing its object, for its own sake—that ultimate intention must find its reasons exclusively in its object—that the intrinsic nature and value of the object must impose obligation to choose it for its own sake—that therefore this intrinsic value is the ground, and the only possible ground, of obligation to choose it for its own sake. It would be our duty to will the highest good of God and of the universe, even did God not will that we should, or were he to will that we should not. How utterly unfounded then, is the assertion, that the sovereign will of God is the ground of obligation. Obligation to do what? Why to love God and our neighbor. That is to will their highest good. And does God’s will create this obligation? Should we be under no such obligation, had he not commanded it? Are we to will this good, not for its own value to God and our neighbor, but because God commands it? The answer to these questions is too obvious to need so much as to be named. But what consistency is there in holding that disinterested benevolence is a universal duty, and at the same time that the sovereign will of God is the foundation of obligation; How can men hold, as many do, that the highest good of being ought to be chosen for its own sake — that to choose it for its own sake is disinterested benevolence — that its intrinsic value imposes obligation to choose it for its own sake, and that this intrinsic value is therefore the ground of obligation, and yet that the will of God is the ground of obligation?

Why, if the will of God be the ground of obligation, then disinterested benevolence is sin. If the will of God does of itself create, and not merely reveal obligation, then the will, and not the interest and well-being of God, ought to be chosen for its own sake, and to be the great end of life. God ought to be consecrated to his own will, instead of his own highest good. Benevolence in God, and in all beings, must be sin, upon this hypothesis. A purely arbitrary will and sovereignty in God is, according to this theory, of more value than his highest well-being, and than that of the whole universe.

But observe,

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Moral obligation respects ultimate intention, or the choice of an end.

The foundation, or fundamental reason for choosing a thing, is that which renders it obligatory to choose it.

This reason is the thing on which the choice ought to terminate, or the true end is not chosen.

Therefore the reason and the end are identical.

If, then, the will of God be the foundation of obligation, it must also be the ultimate end of choice.

But it is impossible for us to will or choose the divine willing as an ultimate end. God’s willing reveals a law, a rule of choice, or of intention. It requires something to be intended as an ultimate end, or for its own intrinsic value. This end cannot be the willing, commandment, law, itself. Does God will that I should choose his willing as an ultimate end? This is impossible. It is a plain contradiction to say that moral obligation respects, directly, ultimate intention only, or the choice of an end, for its own intrinsic value, and yet, that the will of God is the foundation, or reason of the obligation. This is affirming at the same breath that the intrinsic value of the end which God requires me to choose, is the reason, or foundation of the obligation to choose it, and yet that this is not the reason, but that the will of God is the reason.

Willing can never be an end. God cannot will our willing as an end. Nor can he will his willing as an end. Willing, choosing, always, and necessarily, implies an end willed entirely distinct from the willing, or choice, itself. Willing, cannot be regarded, or willed, as an ultimate end, for two reasons:—

(1.) Because that on which choice or willing terminates, and not the choice itself, must be regarded as the end.

(2.) Because choice or willing is of no intrinsic value and of no relative value, aside from the end willed or chosen.

2. The will of God cannot be the foundation of moral obligation in created moral agents. God has moral character, and is virtuous. This implies that he is the subject of moral obligation, for virtue is nothing else than compliance with obligation. If God is the subject of moral obligation, there is some reason, independent of his own will, why he wills as he does; some reason, that imposes obligation upon him to will as he does. His will, then, respecting the conduct of moral agents, is not the fundamental reason of their obligation; but the foundation of their obligation must be the reason which induces God, or makes it obligatory on him, to will in respect to the conduct of moral agents, just what he does.

3. If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, he could, by willing it, change the nature of virtue and vice, which is absurd.

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4. If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, he not only can change the nature of virtue and vice, but has a right to do so; for if there is nothing back of his will that is as binding upon him as upon his creatures, he has a right, at any time, to make malevolence a virtue, and benevolence a vice. For if his will is the ground of obligation, then his will creates right, and whatever he wills, or might will, is right simply and only because so he wills.

5. If the will of God be the foundation of moral obligation, we have no standard by which to judge of the moral character of his actions, and cannot know whether he is worthy of praise or blame. Upon the supposition in question, were God a malevolent being, and did he require all his creatures to be selfish, and not benevolent, he would be just ns virtuous and worthy of praise as now; for the supposition is, that his sovereign will creates right, and of course, will as he might, that would be right, simply because he willed it.

6. If the will of God is the foundation of moral obligation, he has no standard by which to judge of his own character, as he has no rule but his own will, with which to compare his own actions.

7. If the will of God is the foundation of moral obligation, he is not himself a subject of moral obligation. But,

8. If God is not a subject of moral obligation, he has no moral character; for virtue and vice are nothing else but conformity or non-conformity to moral obligation. The will of God, as expressed in his law, is the rule of duty to moral agents. It defines and marks out the path of duty, but the fundamental reason why moral agents ought to act in conformity to the will of God, is plainly not the will of God itself.

9. The will of no being can be law. Moral law is an idea of the divine reason, and not the willing of any being. If the will of any being were law, that being could not, by natural possibility, will wrong; for whatever he willed would be right, simply and only because he willed it.

10. But let us bring this philosophy into the light of divine revelation. “To the law and to the testimony; if it agree not therewith, it is because it hath no light in it.”

The law of God, or the moral law, requires that God shall be loved with all the heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. Now it is manifest that the love required is not mere emotion, but that it consists in choice, willing, intention—i. e., in the choice of something on account of its own intrinsic value, or in the choice of an ultimate end. Now what is this end? What is that which we are to choose for its own intrinsic value? Is it the will or command of God? Are we to will as an ultimate end, that God should will that we should thus will? What can be more absurd, self-contradictory, and ridiculous than this? But again, what is this loving, willing, choosing, intending, required by the law? 33We are commanded to love God and our neighbor. What is this, what can it be, but to will the highest good or well-being of God and our neighbor? This is intrinsically and infinitely valuable. This must be the end, and nothing can possibly be law that requires the choice of any other ultimate end. Nor can that, by any possibility, be true philosophy, that makes anything else the reason or foundation of moral obligation.

But it is said that we are conscious of affirming our obligation to obey the will of God, without reference to any other reason than his will; and this, it is said, proves that his will is the foundation of obligation.

To this I reply, the reason does indeed affirm that we ought to will that which God commands, but it does not and cannot assign his will as the foundation of the obligation. His whole will respecting our duty, is summed up in the two precepts of the law. These, as we have seen, require universal good-will to being, or the supreme love of God and the equal love of our neighbor—that we should will the highest well-being of God and of the universe, for its own sake, or for its own intrinsic value. Reason affirms that we ought thus to will. And can it be so self-contradictory as to affirm that we ought to will the good of God and of the universe, for its own intrinsic value; yet not for this reason, but because God wills that we should will it? Impossible! But in this assertion, the objector has reference to some outward act, some condition or means of the end to be chosen, and not to the end itself. But even in respect to any act whatever, his objection does not hold good. For example, God requires me to labor and pray for the salvation of souls, or to do anything else. Now his command is necessarily regarded by me as obligatory, not as an arbitrary requirement, but as revealing infallibly the true means or conditions of securing the great and ultimate end, which I am to will for its intrinsic value. I necessarily regard his commandment as wise and benevolent, and it is only because I so regard it, that I affirm, or can affirm, my obligation to obey him. Should he command me to choose, as an ultimate end, or for its own intrinsic value, that which my reason affirmed to be of no intrinsic value, I could not possibly affirm my obligation to obey him. Should he command me to do that which my reason affirmed to be unwise and malevolent, it were impossible for me to affirm my obligation to obey him. This proves, beyond controversy, that reason does not regard his command as the foundation of the obligation, but only as infallible proof that that which he commands is wise and benevolent in itself, and commanded by him for that reason.

If the will of God were the foundation of moral obligation, he might command me to violate and trample down all the laws of my being, and to be the enemy of all good, and I should not only be under obligation, 34but affirm my obligation to obey him. But this is absurd. This brings us to the conclusion that he who asserts that moral obligation respects the choice of an end for its intrinsic value, and still affirms the will of God to be the foundation of moral obligation, contradicts his own admissions, the plainest intuitions of reason and divine revelation. His theory is grossly inconsistent and nonsensical. It overlooks the very nature of moral law as an idea of reason, and makes it to consist in arbitrary willing.

Paley’s theory of Self-interest.

This theory, as every reader of Paley knows, makes self-interest the ground of moral obligation. Upon this theory I remark—

1. That if self-interest be the ground of moral obligation, then self-interest is the end to be chosen for its own sake. To be virtuous I must in every instance intend my own interest as the supreme good. Then, according to this theory, disinterested benevolence is sin. To live to God and the universe, is not right. It is not devotion to the right end. This theory affirms self-interest to be the end for which we ought to live. Then selfishness is virtue, and benevolence is vice. These are directly opposite theories. It cannot be a trifle to embrace the wrong view of this subject. If Dr. Paley was right, all are fundamentally wrong who hold the benevolence theory.

2. Upon this hypothesis, I am to treat my own interest as supremely valuable, when it is infinitely less valuable than the interests of God. Thus I am under a moral obligation to prefer an infinitely less good, because it is my own, to one of infinitely greater value that belongs to another. This is precisely what every sinner in earth and hell does.

3. But let us examine this theory in the light of the revealed law. If this philosophy be correct, the law should read, “Thou shalt love thyself supremely, and God and thy neighbor not at all.” For Dr. Paley holds the only reason of the obligation to be self-interest. If this is so, then I am under an obligation to love myself alone, and never do my duty when I at all love God or my neighbor. He says, it is the utility of any rule alone which constitutes the obligation of it. (Paley’s Moral Philos., book ii. chap. 6.) Again he says, “And let it be asked why I am obliged (obligated) to keep my word? and the answer will be, Because I am urged to do so by a violent motive, namely, the expectation of being after this life rewarded if I do so, or punished if I do not.”—(Paley’s Moral Philos., book ii. chap. 3.) Thus it would seem, that it is the utility of a rule to myself only, that constitutes the ground of obligation to obey it.

But should this be denied, still it cannot be denied that Dr. Paley maintains that self-interest is the ground of moral obligation. If this is so, i. e. if this be the foundation of moral obligation, whether Paley or any 35one else holds it to be true, then, undeniably, the moral law should read, “Thou shalt love thyself supremely, and God and thy neighbor subordinately;” or, more strictly, “Thou shalt love thyself as an end, and God and thy neighbor, only as a means of promoting thine own interest.”

If this theory be true, all the precepts in the Bible need to be altered. Instead of the injunction, “Whatever you do, do it heartily unto the Lord,” it should read, “Whatever you do, do it heartily unto yourself.” Instead of the injunction, “Whether, therefore, ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God,” it should read, “Do all to secure your own interest.” Should it be said that this school would say, that the meaning of these precepts is, Do all to the glory of God to secure your own interest thereby, I answer; This is a contradiction. To do it to or for the glory of God is one thing; to do it to secure my own interest is an entirely different and opposite thing. To do it for the glory of God, is to make his glory my end. But to do it to secure my own interest, is to make my own interest the end.

4. But let us look at this theory in the light of the revealed conditions of salvation. “Except a man forsake all that he hath he cannot be my disciple.” If the theory under consideration be true, it should read: “Except a man make his own interest the supreme end of pursuit, he cannot be my disciple.” Again, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross,” etc. This, in conformity with the theory in question, should read: “If any man will come after me, let him not deny himself, but cherish and supremely seek his own interest.” A multitude of such passages might be quoted, as every reader of the Bible knows.

5. But let us examine this theory in the light of other scripture declarations. “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” This, according to the theory we are opposing, should read, “It is more blessed to receive than to give.” “Charity (love) seeketh not her own.” This should read, “Charity seeketh her own.” “No man (that is, no righteous man) liveth to himself.” This should read, “Every (righteous) man liveth to himself.”

6. Let this theory be examined in the light of the spirit and example of Christ. “Even Christ pleased not himself.” This should read, if Christ was holy and did his duty, “Even Christ pleased himself, or which is the same thing, sought his own interest.” “I seek not mine own glory, but the glory of him who sent me.” This should read, “I seek not the glory of him who sent me, but mine own glory.”

But enough; we cannot fail to see that this is a selfish philosophy, and the exact opposite of the truth of God.

The Utilitarian philosophy.

This maintains that the utility of an act or choice renders it obligatory. 36That is, utility is the foundation of moral obligation; that the tendency of an act, choice, or intention, to secure a good or valuable end, is the foundation of the obligation to put forth that choice or intention. Upon this theory I remark—

1. That utilitarians must hold, in common with others, that it is our duty to will the good of God and our neighbor for its own sake; and that the intrinsic value of this good creates obligation to will it, and to endeavor to promote it; that the tendency of choosing it, would be neither useful nor obligatory, but for its intrinsic value. How, then, can they hold that the tendency of choosing to secure its object, instead of the intrinsic value of the object, should be a ground of obligation. It is absurd to say that the foundation of the obligation to choose a certain end, is to be found, not in the value of the end itself, but in the tendency of the intention to secure the end. The tendency is valuable or otherwise, as the end is valuable or otherwise. It is, and must be, the value of the end, and not the tendency of an intention to secure the end, that constitutes the foundation of the obligation to intend.

2. We have seen that the foundation of obligation to will or choose any end as such, that is, on its own account, must consist in the intrinsic value of the end, and that nothing else whatever can impose obligation to choose anything as an ultimate end, but its intrinsic value. To affirm the contrary is to affirm a contradiction. It is the same as to say, that I ought to choose a thing as an end, and not yet as an end, that is, for its own sake, but for some other reason, to wit, the tendency of my choice to secure that end. Here I affirm at the same breath, that the thing intended is to be an end, that is, chosen for its own intrinsic value, and yet not as an end or for its intrinsic value, but for an entirely different reason, to wit, the tendency of the choice to secure it.

3. But the very announcement of this theory implies its absurdity. A choice is obligatory, because it tends to secure good. But why secure good rather than evil? The answer is, because good is valuable. Alt! here then we have another reason, and one which must be the true reason, to wit, the value of the good which the choice tends to secure. Obligation to use means to do good may, and must, be conditioned upon the tendency of those means to secure the end, but the obligation to use them is founded solely in the value of the end.

4. Does the law require us to love God and our neighbor, because loving God and our neighbor tends to the well-being either of God, our neighbor, or ourselves? Is it the tendency or utility of love that makes it obligatory upon us to exercise it? What! will good, not from regard to its value, but because willing good will do good! But why do good? What is this love? Here let it be distinctly remembered that the love required by the law of God is not a mere emotion or feeling, but willing, 37choosing, intending, in a word, that this love is nothing else than ultimate intention. What, then, is to be intended as an end, or for its own sake? Is it the tendency of love, or the utility of ultimate intention, that is the end to be intended? It must be, if utilitarianism is true.

According to this theory, when the law requires supreme love to God, and equal love to our neighbor, the meaning is, not that we are to will, choose, intend the well-being of God and our neighbor for its own sake, or because of its intrinsic value, but because of the tendency of the intention to promote the good of God, our neighbor and ourselves. But let the tendency of love or intention be what it may, the utility of it depends upon the intrinsic value of that which it tends to promote. Suppose love or intention tends to promote its end, this is a useful tendency only because the end is valuable in itself. It is nonsense then to say that love to God and man, or an intention to promote their good, is required, not because of the value of their well-being, but because love tends to promote their well-being. This represents the law as requiring love, not to God and our neighbor as an end, but to tendency as an end. The law in this case should read thus: “Thou shalt love the utility or tendency of love with all thy heart,” etc.

If the theory under consideration is true, this is the spirit and meaning of the law: “Thou shalt love the Lord and thy neighbor, that is, thou shalt choose their good, not for its own sake or as an end, but because choosing it tends to promote it.” This is absurd; for, I ask again, why promote it but for its own value? If the law of God requires ultimate intention, it is a contradiction to affirm that the intention ought to terminate on its own tendency as an end.

5. But it is said that we are conscious of affirming obligation to do many things, on the ground, that those things are useful, or tend to promote good.

I answer, that we are conscious of affirming obligation to do many things upon condition of their tendency to promote good, but that we never affirm obligation to be founded on this tendency. I am under an obligation to use the means to promote good, not for the sake of its intrinsic value, but for the sake of the tendency of the means to promote it! This is absurd.

I say again, the obligation to use means may and must be conditionated upon perceived tendency, but never founded in this tendency. Ultimate intention has no such condition. The perceived intrinsic value imposes obligation without any reference to the tendency of the intention.

6. But suppose any utilitarian should deny that moral obligation respects ultimate intention only, and maintain that it also respects those volitions and actions that sustain to the ultimate end the relation of 38means, and therefore assert that the foundation of moral obligation in respect to all those volitions and actions, is their tendency to secure a valuable end. This would not at all relieve the difficulty of utilitarianism; for in this case tendency could only be a condition of the obligation, while the fundamental reason of the obligation would and must be, the intrinsic value of the end, which these may have a tendency to promote. Tendency to promote an end can impose no obligation. The end must be intrinsically valuable, and this alone imposes obligation to choose the end, and to use the means to promote it. Upon condition that anything is perceived to sustain to this end the relation of a necessary means, we are, for the sake of the end alone, under obligation to use the means.

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