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To fulfil a rational promise or covenant, deliberately made, is a duty no less inflexible than those duties are which arise independent of consent. But as a man is fallible, often misled by ignorance, and liable to be deceived, his condition would be deplorable, did the moral sense compel him to fulfil every engagement, however imprudent or irrational. Here the moral sense gives way to human infirmity: it relieves from deceit, from imposition, from ignorance, from error; and binds a man by no engagement but what answers the end fairly intended. There is still less doubt that it will relieve us from an engagement extorted by external violence, or by overbearing passion, The dread of torture will force most men to submit to any terms; and a man in imminent hazard of drowning, will voluntarily promise all he has in the world to save him. The moral sense would be ill suited to the imbecillity of our nature, did it bind men in conscience to fulfil engagements made in such circumstances.
The other branch of duties, those we owe to ourselves, shall be discussed in a few words. Propriety, a branch of the moral sense, regulates our conduct with respect to ourselves; as Justice, another branch of the moral sense, regulates our conduct with respect to others. Propriety dictates, that we ought to act up to the dignity of our nature, and to the station allotted us by Providence ; it dictates in particular, that temperance, prudence, modesty,
modesty, and uniformity of conduct, are self-duties. These duties contribute to private happiness, by preserving health, peace of mind, and self-esteem; which are inestimable blessings: they contribute no less to happiness in society, by gaining the love and esteem of others, and aid and support in time of need.
Upon reviewing the foregoing duties respecting others, we find them more or less extensive; but none so extensive as to have for their end the good of mankind in general. The most extensive duty is that of restraint, prohibiting us to harm others: but even that duty has a limited end; for its purpose is only to protect others from mischief, not to do them any positive good. The active duties of doing positive good are circumscribed within still narrower bounds, requiring some relation that connects us with others; such as those of parent, child, friend, benefactor. The slighter relations, unless in peculiar circumstances, are not the foundation of any active duty neighbourhood, for example, does not alone make benevolence a duty: but supposing a neighbour to be in distress, relief becomes our duty, if it can be done without distress to ourselves. The duty of relieving from distress, seldom goes farther; for though we always sympathize with our relations, and with those under our eye, the distresses of the remote and unknown affect us very little. Pactions and agreements become necessary, if we would extend the duty of benevo14'
lence beyond the limits mentioned. Men, it is true, are capable of doing more good than is required of them as a duty; but every such good must be a free-will offering.
And this leads to arbitrary or discretionary actions, such as may be done or left undone; which make the second general head of moral actions. With respect to these, the moral sense leaves us at freedom a benevolent act is approved, but the omission is not condemned. This holds strictly in single acts; but in viewing the whole of a man's conduct, the moral sense appears to vary a little. As the nature of man is complex, partly social, partly selfish, we have an intuitive perception, that our conduct ought to be conformable to our nature; and that in advancing our own interest, we ought not altogether to neglect that of others. The man accordingly who confines his whole time and thoughts within his own little sphere, is condemned by all the world as guilty of wrong conduct; and the man himself, if his moral perceptions be not blunted by selfishness, must be sensible that he deserves to be condemned. On the other hand, it is possible that free benevolence may be extended beyond proper bounds; where it prevails, it commonly leads to excess, by prompting a man to sacrifice a great interest of his own to a small interest of others; and the moral sense dictates, that such conduct is wrong. The just
temperament, is a subordination of benevolence to self-love.
Thus, moral actions are divided into two classes: the first regards our duty, containing actions that ought to be done, and actions that ought not to be done; the other regards arbitrary or discretionary actions, containing actions that are right when done, but not wrong when left undone. Society is indeed promoted by the latter; but it can scarce subsist, unless the former be made our duty. Hence it is, that actions only of the first class are made indispensable; those of the other class being left to our free-will. And hence also it is, that the various propensities that dispose us to actions of the first class, are distinguished by the name of primary virtues; leaving the name of secondary virtues to those propensities which dispose us to actions of the other class*.
The deduction above given makes it evident, that the general tendency of right actions is to promote the good of society, and of wrong actions, to obstruct that good. Universal benevolence is indeed not required of man: because to put it in practice, is beyond his utmost abilities. But for promoting the general good, every thing
Virtue signifies that disposition of mind which gives the ascendant to moral principles. Vice signifies that disposition of mind which gives little or no ascendant to moral principles.
is required of him that he can accomplish; which will appear from reviewing the foregoing duties. The prohibition of harming others is an easy task and upon that account is made universal. Our active duties are very different: man is circumscribed both in capacity and power: he cannot do good but in a slow succession; and therefore, it is wisely ordered, that his obligation to do good should be confined to his relations, his friends, his benefactors. Even distress makes not benevolence a general duty: all a man can readily do, is to relieve those at hand; and accordingly we hear of distant misfortunes with little or no concern.
But let not the moral system be misapprehended, as if it were our duty, or even lawful, to prosecute what upon the whole we reckon the most beneficial to society, balancing ill with good. The moral sense permits not a violation of any person's right, however trival, whatever benefit may thereby accrue to another. A man for example in low circumstances, by denying a debt he owes to a rich miser, saves himself and a hopeful family from ruin. In that case, the good effect far outweighs the ill, or rather has no counterbalance: but the moral sense permits not the debtor to balance ill with good; nor gives countenance to an unjust act, whatever benefit it may produce. And hence a maxim in which all moralists agree, That we