The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 1, SECTION 1

Of Moral Law

ETHICS, or Moral Philosophy, is the Science of Moral Law.

The first question which presents itself is, What is moral law? Let us then inquire, first, what is law; and, secondly, what is moral law.

By the term law, I think, we generally mean a form of expression, denoting either a mode of existence, or an order of sequence.

Thus, the first of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws, namely, that every body will continue in a state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line, unless compelled by some force to change its state, denotes a mode of existence.

The third law of motion, that, to every action of one body upon another, there is an equal and contrary reaction, denotes an order of sequence; that is, it declares the general fact, that, if one event occur, the constitution of things under which we exist, is such, that another event will also occur.

The axioms in Mathematics are laws of the same kind. Thus, the axiom, “if equals be added to equals, the wholes will be equal,” denotes an order of sequence, in respect to quantity.

Of the same nature are the laws of Chemistry. Such, for instance, is the law that, if soda be saturated with muriatic acid, the result will be common salt.

Thus, also, in Intellectual Philosophy. If a picture of a visible object be formed upon the retina, and the impression be communicated, by the nerves, to the brain, the result will be an act of perception.

The meaning of law, when referring to civil society, is substantially the same. It expresses an established order of sequence between a specified action, and a particular mode of reward or of punishment. Such, in general, is the meaning of law.

Moral Philosophy takes it for granted that there is in human actions a moral quality; that is, that a human action may be either right or wrong. Every one knows that we may contemplate the same action as wise or unwise; as courteous or impolite; as graceful or awkward; and, also, as right or wrong. It can have escaped the observation of no one, that there are consequences distinct from each other, which follow an action, and which are connected, respectively, with each of its attributes. To take, for instance, a moral quality. Two men may both utter what is false; the one intending to speak the truth, the other intending to deceive. Now, some of the consequences of this act are common to both cases, namely, that the hearers may, in both cases, be deceived. But it is equally manifest, that there are also consequences peculiar to the case in which the speaker intended to deceive; as, for example, the effects upon his own moral character, and upon the estimation in which he is held by the community. And thus, in general, Moral Philosophy proceeds upon the supposition that there exists in the actions of men a moral quality, and that there are certain sequences connected by our Creator with the exhibition of that quality.

A moral law is, therefore, a form of expression denoting an order of sequence established between the moral quality of actions, and their results.

Moral Philosophy, or Ethics, is the science which classifies and illustrates moral law.

Here it may be worth while to remark, that an order of sequence established, supposes, of necessity, an Establisher. Hence Moral Philosophy, as well as every other science, proceeds upon the supposition of the existence of a universal cause, the Creator of all things, who has made every thing as it is. and who has subjected all things to the relations which they sustain. And hence, as all relations, whether moral or physical, are the result of His enactment, an order of sequence once discovered in morals, is just as n variable as an order of sequence in physics.

Such being the fact, it is evident, that the moral laws of God can never be varied by the institutions of man, any more than the physical laws. The results which God has connected with actions; will inevitably occur, all the created power in the universe to the contrary notwithstanding. Nor can these consequences be eluded or averted, any more then the sequences which follow by the laws of gravitation. What should we think of a man who expected to leap from a precipice, and, by some act of sagacity, elude the effect of the accelerating power of gravity? or, of another, who, by the exercise of his own will, determined to render himself imponderable? Every one who believes God to have established an order of sequences in morals, must see that it is equally absurd, to expect to violate, with impunity, any moral law of the Creator.

Yet men have always flattered themselves with the hope that they could violate moral law, and escape the consequences which God has established. The reason is obvious. In physics, the consequent follows the antecedent, often immediately, and most commonly after a stated and well known interval. In morals, the result is frequently long delayed; and the time of its occurrence is always uncertain. Hence, “because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the hearts of the sons of men are fully set min them to do evil.” But time, whether long or short, has neither power nor tendency to change the order of an established sequence. The time required for vegetation, in different orders of plants, may nary; but yet wheat will always produce wheat, and an acorn will always produce an oak. That such is the case in morals, a heathen poet has taught us:

      Raro, antecedentem scelestum
      Deservut, pede pœna claudo.

      HOR. Lib. 3. Car. 2.

A higher authority has admonished us, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” It is also to be remembered, that, in morals as well as in physics, the harvest is always more abundant than the seed from which it springs.