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FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION - 5 - D, PREVIOUS SECTION - NEXT LECTURE - HELP - FACEBOOK
(2.) This philosophy tends naturally to fanaticism. Conceiving as it does of right as distinct from, and often opposed to, benevolence, it scoffs or rails at the idea of inquiring what the highest good evidently demands. It insists that such and such things are right or wrong in themselves, entirely irrespective of what the highest good demands. Having thus in mind a law of right distinct from, and perhaps, opposed to benevolence, what frightful conduct may not this philosophy lead to? This is indeed the law of fanaticism. The tendency of this philosophy is illustrated in the spirit of many reformers, who are bitterly contending for the right, which, after all, is to do nobody any good.
(3.) This philosophy teaches a false morality and a false religion. It exalts right above God, and represents virtue as consisting in the love of right instead of the love of God. It exhorts men to will the right for the sake of the right, instead of the good of being for the sake of the good, or for the sake of being. It teaches us to inquire, How shall I do right?, instead of, How shall I do good? What is right? instead of, What will most promote the good of the universe? Now that which is most promotive of the highest good of being, is right. To intend the highest well-being of God and of the universe, is right. To use the necessary means to promote this end, is right; and whatever in the use of means or in outward action is right, is so for this reason, namely, that it is designed to promote the highest well-being of God and of the universe. But rightarianism points out an opposite course. It says: Will right for the sake of the right, that is, as an end; and in respect to means, inquire not what is manifestly for the highest good of being, for with this you have nothing to do; your business is to will the right for the sake of the right. If you inquire how you are to know what is right, it does not direct you to the law of benevolence as the only standard, but it directs you to an abstract idea of right, as an ultimate rule, having no regard to the law of benevolence or love. It tells you that right is right, because it is right; and not that right is conformity to the law of benevolence, and right for this reason. Now certainly such teaching is radically false, and subversive of all sound morality and true religion.
(4.) As we have formerly seen, this philosophy does not represent virtue as consisting in the love of God, or of Christ, or our neighbor. Consistency must require the abettors of this scheme to give fundamentally false instructions to inquiring sinners. Instead of representing God and all holy beings as devoted to the public good, and instead of exhorting sinners to love God and their neighbor, this philosophy must represent God and holy beings as consecrated to right for the sake of the right; and must exhort sinners, who ask what they shall do to be saved, to will the right for the sake of the right, to love the right, to deify right, and fall down and worship it. There is much of this false morality and religion in the world and in the church. Infidels are great sticklers for this religion, and often exhibit as much of it as do some rightarian professors of religion. It is a severe, stern, loveless, Godless, Christ less philosophy, and nothing but happy inconsistency prevents its advocates from manifesting it in this light to the world. The law of right, when conceived of as distinct from, or opposed to, the law of benevolence, is a perfect strait-jacket, an iron collar, a snare of death.
This philosophy represents all war, all slavery, and many things as wrong per se, without insisting upon such a definition of those things as necessarily implies selfishness. Any thing whatever is wrong in itself that includes and implies selfishness, and nothing else is or can be. All war waged for selfish purposes is wrong per se. But war waged for benevolent purposes, or war required by the law of benevolence, and engaged in with a benevolent design, is neither wrong in itself, nor wrong in any proper sense. All holding men in bondage from selfish motives is wrong in itself, but holding men in bondage in obedience to the law of benevolence is not wrong but right. And so it is with every thing else. Therefore, where it is insisted that all war and all slavery, or any thing else is wrong in itself, such a definition of things must be insisted on as necessarily implies selfishness. But consistent rightarianism will insist that all war, all slavery, and all of many other things, are wrong in themselves without regard to their being violators of the law of benevolence. This is consistent with such philosophy, but it is most false and absurd in fact. Indeed, any philosophy that assumes the existence of a law of right distinct from, and possibly opposed to, the law of benevolence, must teach many doctrines at war with both reason and revelation. It sets men in chase of a philosophical abstraction as the supreme end of life, instead of the concrete reality of the highest well-being of God and the universe. It preys upon the human soul, and turns into solid iron all the tender sensibilities of our being. Do but contemplate a human being supremely devoted to an abstraction, as the end of human life. He wills the right for the sake of the right. Or, more strictly, he wills the good of being, not from any regard to being, but because of the relation of intrinsic fitness or rightness existing between choice and its object. For this he lives, and moves, and has his being. What sort of religion is this? I wish not to be understood as holding, or insinuating, that professed rightarians universally, or even generally, pursue their theory to its legitimate boundary, or that they manifest the spirit that it naturally begets. No, I am most happy in acknowledging that with many, and perhaps with most of them, it is so purely a theory, that they are not greatly influenced by it in practice. Many of them I regard as the excellent of the earth, and I am happy to count them among my dearest and most valued friends. But I speak of the philosophy, with its natural results, when embraced not merely as a theory, but when adopted by the heart as the rule of life. It is only in such cases that its natural and legitimate fruits appear. Only let it be borne in mind that right is conformity to moral law, that moral law is the law of nature, or the law founded in the nature and relations of moral agents, the law that requires just that course of willing and action that tends naturally to secure the highest well-being of all moral agents, that requires this course of willing and acting for the sake of the end in which it naturally and governmentally results, and requires that this end shall be aimed at or intended by all moral agents as the supreme good and the only ultimate end of life; I say, only let these truths be borne in mind, and you will never talk of a right, or a virtue, or a law, obedience to which necessarily results in universal misery; nor will you conceive that such a thing is possible.
Lastly, I come to the consideration of the practical bearings of what I regard as the true theory of the foundation of moral obligation, namely, that the intrinsic nature and value of the highest well-being of God and of the universe is the sole foundation of moral obligation.
Upon this philosophy I remark:
That if this be true, the whole subject of moral obligation is perfectly simple and intelligible; so plain, indeed, that "the wayfaring man, though a fool, cannot err therein."
Upon this theory, every moral agent knows in every possible instance what is right, and can never mistake his real duty.
His duty is to will this end with all the known conditions and means thereof. Intending this end with a single eye, and doing what appears to him, with all the light he can obtain, to be in the highest degree calculated to secure this end, he really does his duty. If in this case he is mistaken in regard to what is the best means of securing this end, still, with a benevolent intention, he does not sin. He has done right, for he has intended as he ought, and acted outwardly as he thought was the path of duty, under the best light he could obtain. This, then, was his duty. He did not mistake his duty; because it was duty to intend as he intended, and under the circumstances, to act as he acted. How else should he have acted?
If a moral agent can know what end he aims at or lives for, he can know, and cannot but know, at all times, whether he is right or wrong. All that upon this theory a moral agent needs to be certain of is, whether he lives for the right end, and this, if at all honest, or if dishonest, he really cannot but know. If he would ask, what is right or what is duty at any time, he need not wait for a reply. It is right for him to intend the highest good of being as an end. If he honestly does this, he cannot mistake his duty, for in doing this he really performs the whole of duty. With this honest intention, it is impossible that he should not use the means to promote this end, according to the best light he has; and this is right. A single eye to the highest good of God and the universe, is the whole of morality, strictly considered; and, upon this theory, moral law, moral government, moral obligation, virtue, vice, and the whole subject of morals and religion are the perfection of simplicity. If this theory be true, no honest mind ever mistook the path of duty. To intend the highest good of being is right and is duty. No mind is honest that is not steadily pursuing this end. But in the honest pursuit of this end there can be no sin, no mistaking the path of duty. That is and must be the path of duty that really appears to a benevolent mind to be so. That is, it must be his duty to act in conformity with his honest convictions. This is duty, this is right. So, upon this theory, no one who is truly honest in pursuing the highest good of being, ever did or can mistake his duty in any such sense as to commit sin.
I have spoken with great plainness, and perhaps with some severity, of the several systems of error, as I cannot but regard them, upon the most fundamental and important of subjects; not certainly from any want of love to those who hold them, but from a concern, long cherished and growing upon me, for the honor of truth and for the good of being. Should any of you ever take the trouble to look into this subject, in its length and breadth, and read the various systems, and take the trouble to trace out their practical results, as actually developed in the opinions and practices of men, you certainly would not be at a loss to account for the theological and philosophical fogs that so bewilder the world. How can it be otherwise, while such confusion of opinion prevails upon the fundamental question of morals and religion?
How is it, that there is so much profession and so little real practical benevolence in the world? Multitudes of professed Christians seem to have no conception that benevolence constitutes true religion; that nothing else does; and that selfishness is sin, and totally incompatible with religion. They live on in their self-indulgences, and dream of heaven. This could not be, if the true idea of religion, as consisting in sympathy with the benevolence of God, was fully developed in their minds.
I need not dwell upon the practical bearings of the other theories which I have examined; what I have said may suffice, as an illustration of the importance of being well-established in this fundamental truth. It is affecting to see what conceptions multitudes entertain in regard to the real spirit and meaning of the law and gospel of God, and, consequently, of the nature of holiness.
In dismissing this subject, I would remark, that any system of moral philosophy that does not correctly define a moral action, and the real ground of obligation, must be fundamentally defective. Nay, if consistent, it must be highly destructive and dangerous. But let moral action be clearly and correctly defined, let the true ground of obligation be clearly and correctly stated; and let both these be kept constantly in view, and such a system would be of incalculable value. It would be throughout intelligible, and force conviction upon every intelligent reader. But I am not aware that any such system exists. So far as I know, they are all faulty, either in their definition of a moral action, and do not fasten the eye upon the ultimate intention, and keep it there as being the seat of moral character, and that from which the character of all our actions is derived; or they soon forget this, and treat mere executive acts as right or wrong, without reference to the ultimate intention. I believe they have all failed in not clearly defining the true ground of obligation, and, consequently, are faulty in their definition of virtue.