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MORAL OBLIGATION - A, PREVIOUS LECTURE - NEXT SECTION - HELP - FACEBOOK
Man is a subject of moral obligation.
That man has intellect and sensibility, or the powers of knowing and feeling, has not, to my knowledge, been doubted. In theory, the freedom of the will in man has been denied. Yet the very deniers, have, in their practical judgment, assumed the freedom of the human will, as well, and as fully as the most staunch defenders of human liberty of will. Indeed, nobody ever did or can, in practice, call in question the freedom of the human will, without justly incurring the charge of insanity. By a necessity of his nature, every moral agent knows himself to be free. He can no more hide this fact from himself, or reason himself out of the conviction of its truth, than he can speculate himself into a disbelief of his own existence. He may, in speculation, deny either, but in fact he knows both. That he is, that he is free, are truths equally well known, and known precisely in the same way, namely, he intuits them sees them in their own light, by virtue of the constitution of his own being. I have said that man is conscious of possessing the powers of a moral agent. He has also the idea of the valuable, of right and of wrong; of this he is conscious. But nothing else is necessary to constitute man or any other being a subject of moral obligation, and the possession of these powers, together with sufficient light on moral subjects to develop the ideas just mentioned.
Man, by a law of necessity, affirms himself to be under moral obligation. He cannot doubt it. He affirms absolutely and necessarily, that he is praiseworthy or blameworthy as he is benevolent or selfish. Every man assumes this of himself, and of all other men of sound mind. This assumption is irresistible, as well as universal.
The truth assumed then is not to be called in question. But if it be called in question in theory, it still remains, and must remain, while reason remains, a truth of certain knowledge, from the presence of which there is, and can be no escape. The spontaneous, universal, and irresistible affirmation than men of sound mind are praiseworthy or blameworthy, as they are selfish or benevolent, shows beyond contradiction, that all men regard themselves, and others, as the subjects of moral obligation.
Extent of moral obligation
By this is intended, to what acts and states of mind does moral obligation extend? This certainly is a solemn and a fundamentally important question. In the examination of this question, let us inquire first, to what acts and states of mind moral obligation cannot directly extend.
1. Not to external or muscular action. These actions are connected with the actions of the will, by a law of necessity. If I will to move my muscles, they must move, unless the nerves of voluntary motion are paralyzed, or some resistance is offered to muscular motion, that overpowers the strength of my will, or, if you please, of my muscles. It is generally understood and agreed that moral obligation does not directly extend to bodily or outward action.
2. Not to the states of the sensibility. I have already remarked that we are conscious, that our feelings are not voluntary, but involuntary states of mind. Moral obligation cannot, therefore, directly extend to them.
3. Not to states of the intellect. The phenomena of this faculty, we also know by consciousness, to be under the law of necessity. It is impossible that moral obligation should extend directly to any involuntary act or state of mind.
4. Not to unintelligent acts of will. There are many unintelligent volitions, or acts of will, to which moral obligation cannot extend, for example, the volitions of maniacs, or of infants, before the reason is at all developed. They must at birth, be the subjects of volition, as they have motion or muscular action. The volitions of somnambulists are also of this character. Purely instinctive volitions must also come under the category of unintelligent actions of will. For example: a bee lights on my hand, I instantly and instinctively shake him off. I tread on a hot iron, and instinctively move my foot. Indeed there are many actions of will which are put forth under the influence of pure instinct, and before the intellect and affirm obligation to will or not to will. These surely cannot have moral character, and of course moral obligation cannot extend to them.
We inquire in the second place, to what acts and states of mind moral obligation must directly extend.
1. To ultimate acts of will. These are and must be free. Intelligent acts of will, as has been before observed, are of three classes. First, the choice of some object for its own sake, i.e., because of its own nature, or for reasons found exclusively in itself, as, for example, the happiness of being. These are called ultimate choices, or intentions. Second, the choice of the conditions and means of securing the object of ultimate choice, or for example, holiness, as the conditions or means of happiness. Third, volitions, or executive efforts to secure the object of ultimate choice. Obligations must extend to these three classes of the actions of the will. In the most strict and proper sense it may be said, that obligation extends directly only to the ultimate intention.
The choice of an end necessitates the choice of the known conditions and means of securing this end. I am free to relinquish, at any moment, my choice of an end, but while I persevere in the choice, or ultimate intention, I am not free to refuse the known necessary conditions and means. If I reject the known conditions and means, I, in this act, relinquish the choice of the end. The desire of the end may remain, but the actual choice of it cannot, when the will knowingly rejects the known necessary conditions and means. In this case, the will prefers to let go the end, rather than to chose and use the necessary conditions and means. In the strictest sense the choice of known conditions and means, together with executive volitions, is implied in the ultimate intention or in the choice of an end.
When the good or valuable per se, is perceived by a moral agent, he instantly and necessarily, and without conditions, affirms his obligation to choose it. This affirmation is direct and universal, absolute, or without condition. Whether he will affirm himself to be under obligation to put forth efforts to secure the good, must depend upon his regarding such acts a necessary, possible, and useful. The obligation, therefore, to put forth ultimate choice, is in the strictest sense direct, absolute and universal.
Obligation to choose holiness, (as the holiness of God), as the means of happiness, is indirect in the sense that is conditionated, first, upon the obligation to choose happiness as a good per se, and, second, upon the knowledge that holiness is the necessary means of happiness.