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FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION - 2 - A, PREVIOUS LECTURE - NEXT SECTION - HELP - FACEBOOK
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 (Mahan'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.
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 the 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 choice. 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.