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LECTURE V.

FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION.

The theory of Right as the foundation of obligation.

In the examination of this philosophy I must begin by defining terms. What is right? The primary signification of the term is straight. When used in a moral sense it means fit, suitable, agreeable to the nature and relations of moral agents. Right, in a moral sense, belongs to choice, intention, and is an intention straight with, or conformed to, moral law. The inquiry before us is, what is the ground of obligation to put forth choice or intention. Rightarians say that right is the ground of such obligation. This is the answer given to this question by a large school of philosophers and theologians. But what does this assertion mean? It is generally held by this school, that right, in a moral sense, pertains primarily and strictly to intentions only. They maintain, as I do, that obligation pertains primarily and strictly to ultimate choice or intentions, and less strictly to executive volitions, and to choice of the conditions and means of securing the object of ultimate choice. Now in what sense of the term right do they regard it as the ground of obligation?

Right is objective and subjective. Right in the objective sense of the term, has been recently defined to consist in the relation of intrinsic fitness existing between ultimate choice and its object.11Mahan’s Moral Philosophy. For example, the nature or intrinsic value of the highest well-being of God and of the universe, creates the relation of intrinsic fitness between it and choice, and this relation, it is insisted, creates, or is the ground of, obligation.

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Subjective right is synonymous with righteousness, uprightness, virtue. It consists in, or is an attribute of, that state of the will which is conformed to objective right or to moral law. It is a term that expresses the moral quality, element, or attribute of that ultimate intention which the law of God requires. In other words still, it is conformity of heart to the law of objective right; or, as I just said, it is more strictly the term that designates the moral character of that state of heart. Some choose to regard subjective right as consisting in this state of heart, and others insist that it is only an element, attribute, or quality of this state of heart, or of this ultimate intention. I shall not contend about words, but shall show that it matters not, so far as the question we are about to examine is concerned, in which of these lights subjective right is regarded, whether as consisting in ultimate intention conformed to law, or, as being an attribute, element, or quality of this intention.

The theory under consideration was held by the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. It was the theory of Kant, and is now the theory of the transcendental school in Europe and America. Cousin, in manifest accordance with the views of Kant, states the theory in these words: “Do right for the sake of the right, or rather, will the right for the sake of the right. Morality has to do with the intentions.”—(Enunciation of Moral Law—Elements of Psychology, p. 162.) Those who follow Kant, Cousin, and Coleridge state the theory either in the same words, or in words that amount to the same thing. They regard right as the foundation of moral obligation. “Will the right for the sake of the right.” This must mean, will the right as an ultimate end, that is, for its own sake. Let us examine this very popular philosophy, first, in the light of its own principles, and secondly in the light of revelation.

The writer first above alluded to, has professedly given a critical definition of the exact position and teaching of rightarians. They hold, according to him, and I suppose he has rightly defined the position of that school, that subjective right is the ground of obligation. We shall see, hereafter, that subjective right, or righteousness, can never be a ground of moral obligation. We will here attend to the critically defined position of the rightarian who holds that the relation of intrinsic fitness existing between choice and an intrinsically valuable object, is the ground of obligation to choose that object.

Now observe, this writer strenuously maintains, that the reason for ultimate choice must be found exclusively in the object of such choice, in other words, that ultimate choice, is the choice of its object for its own sake, or for what is intrinsic in the object itself. He also affirms repeatedly, that the ground of obligation is, and must be, found exclusively in the object of ultimate choice, and also that the ground of obligation is the consideration, intrinsic in the object of choice, which compels 40the reason to affirm the obligation to choose it for its own sake. But all this as flatly as possible contradicts his rightarian theory, as above stated. If the ground of obligation to put forth ultimate choice is to be found, as it certainly must be, in the nature of the object of choice, and in nothing extrinsic to it, how can it consist in the relation of intrinsic fitness existing between the choice and its object? Plainly it cannot. This relation is not intrinsic in the object of choice.

Observe, the obligation is to choose the object of ultimate choice, not for the sake of the relation existing between the choice and its object, but exclusively for the sake of what is intrinsic in the object itself. The relation is not the object of choice, but the relation is created by the object of choice. Choice being what it is, the intrinsic nature or value of the object, as the good of being for example, creates both the relation of rightness and the obligation to choose the object for its own sake. That which creates the relation of objective rightness must, for the same reason, create the obligation, for it is absurd to say that the intrinsic value of the object creates the relation of rightness between itself and choice, and yet that it does not impose or create obligation to choose itself for its own sake.

It is self-evident then, that since the object ought to be chosen for the sake of its own nature, or for what is intrinsic in it, and not for the sake of the relation in question, the nature of the object, and not the relation, is, and must be, the ground of obligation.

But, the writer who has given the above defined position of the rightarians, says that “the intelligence, in judging an act to be right or wrong, does not take into the account the object nor the act by itself, but both together, in their intrinsic relations, as the ground of its affirmation.”

But the nature of ultimate choice, and the nature of its object, the good of being, for example, with their intrinsic relations to each other, form a ground of obligation to choose—what? the choice, the object, and their intrinsic relations? No, but simply and only to choose the good for its own sake, or solely for the sake of what is intrinsic in it. Observe, it is often affirmed by this writer, that ultimate choice is the choice of an object for its own sake, or for what is intrinsic in the object itself. That the ground of obligation to put forth ultimate choice, must in every case, be intrinsic in the object of choice. But the object of choice in this case is the good of being, and not the nature of the choice and of the good of being, together with the intrinsic relation of rightness existing between them. The form of the obligation discloses the ground of it. The form of the obligation is to choose the good of being, i. e. the object of choice, for what is intrinsic in it. Then, the ground of the obligation must be, the intrinsic nature of the good, i. e. of the object of 41choice. The nature of choice, and the intrinsic relations of the choice, and the good, are conditions, but not the ground, of the obligation. Had this writer only kept in mind his own most critical definition of ultimate intention, his often repeated assertions that the ground of obligation must be, in every case, found intrinsically in the object of ultimate choice, and in nothing extraneous to it, he never could have made the statement we have just examined.

The duty of universal disinterested benevolence is universally and necessarily affirmed and admitted. But if the rightarian be the true theory, then disinterested benevolence is sin. According to this scheme, the right, and not the good of being, is the end to, and for which, God and all moral agents ought to live. According to this theory, disinterested benevolence can never be duty, can never be right, but always and necessarily wrong. I do not mean that the advocates of this theory see and avow this conclusion. But it is wonderful that they do not, for nothing is more self-evident. If moral agents ought to will the right for the sake of the right, or will good, not for the sake of the good, but for the sake of the relation of rightness existing between the choice and the good, then to will the good for its own sake is sin. It is not willing the right end. It is willing the good and not the right as an ultimate end. These are opposing theories. Both cannot be true. Which is the right to will, the good for its own sake, or the right? Let universal reason answer.

But let us examine this philosophy in the light of the oracles of God.

1. In the light of the moral law. The whole law is expressed by the great Teacher thus: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, with all thy might, and with all thy strength; and thy neighbor as thyself.” Paul says: “All the law is fulfilled in one word—love: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Now it is admitted by this philosophy, that the love required by the law is not a mere emotion, but that it consists in willing, choice, intention; that it consists in the choice of an ultimate end, or in the choice of something for its own sake, or, which is the same thing, for its intrinsic value. What is this which the law requires us to will to God and our neighbor? Is it to will something to, or respecting, God and our neighbor, not for the sake of the intrinsic value of that something, but for the sake of the relation of rightness existing between choice and that something? This were absurd. Besides, what has this to do with loving God and our neighbor? To will the something, the good, for example, of God, and our neighbor, for the sake of the relation in question, is not the same as to love God and our neighbor, as it is not willing their good for its own sake. It is not willing their good, out of any regard to them, but solely out of regard to the relation of fitness existing between the 42willing and the object willed. Suppose it be said, that the law requires us to will the good, or highest blessedness of God and our neighbor, because it is right. This is a contradiction and an impossibility. To will the blessedness of God and our neighbor, in any proper sense, is to will it for its own sake, or as an ultimate end. But this is not to will it because it is right. To will the good of God and our neighbor for its own sake, or its intrinsic value, is right. But to will it, not for the sake of its intrinsic value to them, but for the sake of the relations in question, is not right. To will the good because it is good, or the valuable because it is valuable, is right, because it is willing it for the right reason. But to will it, not for its value, but for the sake of the relation of fitness between the willing and the object, is not right, because it is not willing it for the right reason. The law of God does not, cannot, require us to love right more than God and our neighbor. What! right of greater value than the highest well being of God and of the universe? Impossible! It is impossible that the moral law should require anything else than to will the highest good of universal being as an ultimate end, i. e. for its own sake. It is a first truth of reason, that this is the most valuable thing possible or conceivable; and that could by no possibility be law, which should require anything else to be chosen as an ultimate end. According to this philosophy, the revealed law should read: “Thou shalt love the right for its own sake, with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” The fact is, the law requires the supreme love of God, and the equal love of our neighbor. It says nothing, and implies nothing, about doing right for the sake of the right. Rightarianism is a rejection of the divine revealed law, and a substituting in its stead an entirely different rule of moral obligation: a rule that deifies right, that rejects the claim of God, and exalts right to the throne.

2. “Whether therefore ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” Does this precept require us to will the glory of God for its intrinsic or relative value, or for the sake of intrinsic fitness between the willing and its object? The glory and renown of God is of infinite value to him, and to the universe, and for this reason it should be promoted. The thing required here is doing, an executive act. The spirit of the requisition is this: Aim to spread abroad the renown or glory of God, as the means of securing the highest well-being of the universe. Why? I answer: for the sake of the intrinsic value of this well-being, and not for the sake of the relation of fitness existing between the willing and the object.

3. “Do good unto all men, as ye have opportunity.” Here again, are we required to do the good, for the sake of the good, or for the sake of the relation of rightness, between the doing and the good? I answer: we are to do the good for the sake of the good.

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4. Take the commands to pray and labor for the salvation of souls. Do such commandments require us to go forth to will or do the right for the sake of the right, or to will the salvation of souls for the intrinsic value of their salvation? When we pray and preach and converse, must we aim at right, must the love of right, and not the love of God and of souls influence us? When I am engaged in prayer, and travail night and day for souls, and have an eye so single to the good of souls and to the glory of God, and am so swallowed up with my subject as not so much as to think of the right, am I all wrong? Must I pray because it is right, and do all I do, and suffer all I suffer, not from good-will to God and man, but because it is right? Who does not know, that to intend the right for the sake of the right in all these things, instead of having an eye single to the good of being, would and must be anything rather than true religion?

5. Examine this philosophy in the light of the scripture declaration: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.” Now, are we to understand that God gave his Son, not from any regard to the good of souls for its own sake, but for the sake of the right? Did he will the right for the sake of the right? Did he give his Son to die for the right, for the sake of the right, or to die to render the salvation of souls possible, for the sake of the souls? Did Christ give himself to labor and die for the right, for the sake of the right, or for souls, from love to souls? Did prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, and have the saints in all ages, willed the right for the sake of the right, or have they labored and suffered and died for God and souls, from love to them?

6. But take another passage which is quoted in support of this philosophy: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Now what is the spirit of this requirement? What is it to obey parents? Why, if as this philosophy holds, it must resolve itself into ultimate intention, what must the child intend for its own sake? Must he will good to God and his parents, and obey his parents as the means of securing the highest good, or must he will the right as an end, for the sake of the right, regardless of the good of God or of the universe? Would it be right to will the right for the sake of the right, rather than to will the good of the universe for the sake of the good, and obey his parents as a means of securing the highest good?

It is right to will the highest good of God and of the universe, and to use all the necessary means, and fulfil all the necessary conditions of this highest well-being. For children to obey their parents, is one of the means, and for this reason it is right, and upon no other condition can it be required. But it is said that children affirm their obligation 44to obey their parents, entirely irrespective of the obedience having any reference, or sustaining any relation, to the good of being. This is a mistake. The child, if he is a moral agent, and does really affirm moral obligation, not only does, but must perceive the end upon which his choice or intention ought to terminate. If he really makes an intelligent affirmation, it is and must be, that he ought to will an end; that this end is not, and cannot be the right, as has been shown. He knows that he ought to will his parents’ happiness, and his own happiness, and the happiness of the world, and of God; and he knows that obedience to his parents sustains the relation of a means to this end; The fact is, it is a first truth of reason, that he ought to will the good of his parents, and the good of everybody. He also knows that obedience to his parents is a necessary means to this end. If he does not know these things, it is impossible for him to be a moral agent, to make any intelligent affirmation at all; and if he has any idea of obedience, it is, and must be, only such as animals have who are actuated wholly by hope, fear and instinct. As well might we say, that an ox or a dog, who gives indication of knowing, in some sense, that he ought to obey us, affirms moral obligation of himself, as to say this of a child in whose mind the idea of the good, or valuable to being is not developed. What! does moral obligation respect ultimate intention only; and does ultimate intention consist in the choice of something for its own intrinsic value, and yet is it true that children affirm moral obligation before the idea of the intrinsically valuable is at all developed? Impossible! But this objection assumes that children have the idea of right developed before the idea of the valuable. This cannot be. The end to be chosen must be apprehended by the mind, before the mind can have the idea of moral obligation to choose an end, or of the right or wrong of choosing or not choosing it. The development of the idea of the good or valuable, must precede the development of the ideas of right and of moral obligation.

Take this philosophy on its own ground, and suppose the relation of rightness existing between choice and its object to be the ground of obligation, it is plain that the intrinsically valuable object must be perceived, before this relation can be perceived. So that the idea of the intrinsically valuable must be developed, as a condition of the existence of the idea of the relation in question. The law of God, then, is not, and cannot be, developed in the mind of a child who has no knowledge or idea of the valuable, and who has, and can have, no reference to the good of any being, in obedience to his parents.

It is one thing to intend that, the intending of which is right, and quite another to intend the right as an end. For example, to choose my own gratification as an end, is wrong. But this is not choosing the 45wrong as an end. A drunkard chooses to gratify his appetite for strong drink as an end, that is, for its own sake. This is wrong. But the choice does not terminate on the wrong, but on the gratification. The thing intended is not the wrong. The liquor is not chosen, the gratification is not intended, because it is wrong, but notwithstanding it is wrong. To love God is right, but to suppose that God is loved because it is right, is absurd. It is to suppose that God is loved, not from any regard to God, but from a regard to right. This is an absurdity and a contradiction. To love or will the good of my neighbor, is right. But to will the right, instead of the good of my neighbor, is not right. It is loving right instead of my neighbor; but this is not right.

1. But it is objected, that I am conscious of affirming to myself that I ought to will the right. This is a mistake. I am conscious of affirming to myself, that I ought to will that, the willing of which is right, to wit, to will the good of God and of being. This is right. But this is not choosing the right as an end.

But it is still insisted, that we are conscious of affirming obligation to will, and do, many things, simply and only because it is right thus to will, and do, and in view of this rightness.

To this I reply, that the immediate reason for the act, thought of at the time, and immediately present to the mind, may be the rightness of the act, but in such cases the rightness is only regarded by the mind as a condition and never as the ground of obligation. The act must be ultimate choice, or the choice of conditions and means. In ultimate choice, surely, the mind can never affirm, or think of the relation of rightness between the choice and its object, instead of the intrinsic value of the object, as the ground of obligation. Nor can the mind think of the relation of rightness between the choice of conditions and means, and its object, as the ground of the obligation to choose them. It does, and must, assume, the value of the end, as creating both the obligation to choose, and the relation in question. The fact is, the mind necessarily assumes, without always thinking of this assumption, its obligation to will the good, for its own sake, together with all the known conditions and means. Whenever therefore it perceives a condition, or a means of good, it instantly and necessarily affirms obligation to choose it, or, which is the same thing, it affirms the rightness of such choice. The rightness of the choice may be, and often is the thing immediately thought of, but the assumption is, and must be, in the mind, that this obligation, and hence the rightness is created by the nature of the object to which this thing sustains the relation of a condition or a means.

2. But it is said again, “I am conscious of affirming to myself that I ought to will the good of being, because it is right.” That is, to will the good of being, as a means, and the right as an end! which is 46making right the supreme good, and the good of being a means to that end. This is absurd. But to say, that I am conscious of affirming to myself my obligation to love or will the good of God and my neighbor, because it is right, is a contradiction. It is the same as to say, I ought to love, or intend the good of God and my neighbor, as an ultimate end, and yet not to intend the good of God and my neighbor, but intend the right.

3. But it is said, that “I ought to love God in compliance with, and out of respect to my obligation; that I ought to will it, because and for the reason that I am bound to will it.” That is, that in loving God and my neighbor, I must intend to discharge or comply with my obligation; and this, it is said, is identical with intending the right. But ought my supreme object to be to discharge my duty—to meet obligation, instead of willing the well-being of God and my neighbor for its own sake? If my end is to do my duty, I do not do it. For what is my obligation? Why, to love, or will the good of God and my neighbor, that is, as an end, or for its own value. To discharge my obligation, then, I must intend the good of God and my neighbor, as an end. That is, I must intend that which I am under an obligation to intend. But I am not under an obligation to intend the right, because it is right, nor do my duty because it is my duty, but to intend the good of God and of my neighbor, because it is good. Therefore, to discharge my obligation, I must intend the good, and not the right—the good of God and my neighbor and not to do my duty. I say again, to intend the good, or valuable, is right but to intend the right is not right.

4. But it is said, that in very many instances, at least, I am conscious of affirming my moral obligation to do the right, without any reference to the good of being, when I can assign no other reason for the affirmation of obligation than the right. For example, I behold virtue; I affirm spontaneously and necessarily, that I ought to love that virtue. And this, it is said, has no reference to the good of being. Is willing the right for the sake of the right, and loving virtue, the same thing? But what is it to love virtue? Not a mere feeling of delight or complacency in it. It is agreed that moral obligation, strictly speaking, respects the ultimate intention only. What, then, do I mean by the affirmation that I ought to love virtue? What is virtue? It is ultimate intention, or an attribute of ultimate intention. But what is loving virtue? It consists in willing its existence. But it is said that I affirm my obligation to love virtue as an end, or for its own sake, and not from any regard to the good of being. This is absurd, and a contradiction. To love virtue, it is said, is to will its existence as an end. But virtue consists in intending an end. Now, to love virtue, it is said, is to will, intend its existence as an end, for its own sake. Then, according to this theory, I 47affirm my obligation to intend the intention of a virtuous being as an end, instead of intending the same end that he does. This is absurd; his intention is of no value, is neither naturally good nor morally good, irrespective of the end intended. It is neither right nor wrong, irrespective of the end chosen. It is therefore impossible to will, choose, intend the intention as an end, without reference to the end intended. To love virtue, then, is to love or will the end upon which virtuous intention terminates, namely, the good of being; or, in other words, to love virtue is to will its existence for the sake of the end it has in view, which is the same thing as to will the same end. Virtue is intending, choosing an end. Loving virtue is willing that the virtuous intention should exist for the sake of its end. Take away the end, and who would or could will the intention? Without the end, the virtue, or intention, would not and could not exist. It is not true, therefore, that in the case supposed, I affirm my obligation to will, or intend, without any reference to the good of being.

5. But again, it is said, that when I contemplate the moral excellence of God, I affirm my obligation to love him solely for his goodness, without any reference to the good of being, and for no other reason than because it is right. But to love God because of his moral excellence, and because it is right, are not the same thing. It is a gross contradiction to talk of loving God for his moral excellence, because it is right. It is the same as to say, I love God for the reason that he is morally excellent, or worthy, yet not at all for this reason, but for the reason that it is right. To love God for his moral worth, is to will good to him for its own sake upon condition that he deserves it. But to will his moral worth because it is right, is to will the right as an ultimate end, to have supreme regard to right, instead of the moral worth, or the well-being of God.

But it may reasonably be asked, why should rightarians bring forward these objections? They all assume that moral obligation may respect something else than ultimate intention. Why, I repeat it, should rightarians affirm that the moral excellence of God is the foundation of moral obligation, since they hold that right is the foundation of moral obligation? Why should the advocates of the theory that the moral excellence of God is the foundation of moral obligation, affirm that right is the foundation, or that we are bound to love God for his moral excellence, because this is right? These are gross contradictions. Rightarians hold that disinterested benevolence is a universal duty; that this benevolence consists in willing the highest good of being in general, for its own sake; that this good, by virtue of its own nature, imposes obligation to choose it, for its own sake, and therefore, and for this reason, it is right thus to choose it. But notwithstanding all this, they most inconsistently 48affirm that right is universally the ground of obligation. Consistency must compel them to deny that disinterested benevolence ever is, or can be, duty and right, or to abandon the nonsensical dogma, that right is the ground of obligation. There is no end to the absurdities in which error involves its advocates, and it is singular to see the advocates of the different theories, each in his turn, abandon his own and affirm some other, as an objection to the true theory. It has also been, and still is, common for writers to confound different theories with each other, and to affirm, in the compass of a few pages, several different theories. At least this has been done in some instances.

Consistent rightarianism is a godless, Christless, loveless philosophy. This Kant saw and acknowledged. He calls it pure legality, that is, he understands the law as imposing obligation by virtue of its own nature, instead of the intrinsic value of the end, which the law requires moral agents to choose. He loses sight of the end, and does not recognize any end whatever. He makes a broad distinction between morality and religion. Morality consists, according to him, in the adoption of the maxim, “Do right for the sake of the right,” or, “Act at all times upon a maxim fit for law universal.” The adoption of this maxim is morality. But now, having adopted this maxim, the mind goes abroad to carry its maxim into practice. It finds God and being to exist, and sees it to be right to intend their good. This intending the good is religion, according to him. Thus, he says, ethics lead to or result in religion.—(See Kant, on Religion.) But we feel prompted to inquire whether, when we apprehend God and being, we are to will their well-being as an end, or for its own sake, or because it is right? If for its own sake, where then is the maxim, “Will the right for the sake of the right?” For if we are to will the good, not as an ultimate end, but for the sake of the right, then right is the end that is preferred to the highest well-being of God and of the universe. It is impossible that this should be religion. Indeed Kant himself admits that this is not religion.

But enough of this cold and loveless philosophy. As it exalts right above all that is called God, and subverts all the teachings of the Bible, it cannot be a light thing to be deluded by it. But it is remarkable and interesting to see Christian rightarians, without being sensible of their inconsistency, so often confound this philosophy with that which teaches that good-will to being constitutes virtue. Numerous examples of it occur everywhere in their writings, which demonstrate that rightarianism is with them only a theory that plays round the head but comes not near the heart.”

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