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

Francis Wayland

BOOK 2, DIVISION 1, CLASS 1, CHAPTER 3

Justice as it Respects Character

CHARACTER is the present intellectual, social, and moral condition of an individual. It comprehends his actual acquisitions, his capacities, his habits, his tendencies, his moral feelings, and every thing which enters into a man’s state for the present, or his powers for attaining to a better state in the future.

That character, in this sense, is by far the most important of all the possessions which a man can call his own, is too evident, to need discussion. It is the source of all that he either suffers or enjoys here, and of all that he either fears or hopes for hereafter.

If such be the fact, benevolence would teach us the obligation to do all in our power to improve the character of our neighbor. This is its chief office. This is the great practical aim of Christianity. Reciprocity merely prohibits the infliction of any injury upon the character of another.

The reasons of this prohibition are obvious. No man can injure his own character, without violating the laws of God, and also creating those tendencies which result in violation of the laws of man. He who, in any manner, becomes voluntarily the cause of this violation, is a partaker, and, not unfrequently, the largest partaker, in the guilt. As he who tempts another to suicide is, in the sight of God, guilty of murder, so he who instigates another to wickedness, by producing those states of mind which necessarily lead to it, is, in the sight of God, held responsible, in no slight degree, for the result.

Again, consider the motives which lead men to injure the character of each other. These are either pure malice; or reckless self-gratification,

First, malice. Some men so far transcend the ordinary limits of human depravity, as to derive a truly fiend-like pleasure from alluring and seducing from the paths of virtue the comparatively innocent, and to exult over the moral desolations which they have thus accomplished “They will compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, they make him tenfold more the child of hell than themselves.” It is scarcely necessary to add, that language has no terms of moral indignation that are capable of branding, with adequate infamy, conduct so intensely vicious. It is wickedness, without excuse, and without palliation. Or, secondly, take the more favorable case. One man wishes to accomplish some purpose of self-gratification, to indulge his passions, to increase his power, or to feed his vanity; and, he proceeds to accomplish that purpose, by means of rendering another immortal and accountable moral creature degraded for ever, a moral pest henceforth, on earth, and both condemned, and the cause of condemnation to others, throughout eternity. Who has given this wretch a right to work so awful a ruin among God’s creatures, for the gratification of a momentary and an unholy desire? And will not the Judge of all, when he maketh inquisition for blood, press to the lips of such a sinner the bitterest dregs of the cup of trembling?

With this, all the teaching of the sacred Scriptures is consonant. The most solemn maledictions in the Holy Scriptures are uttered against those who have been the instruments of corrupting others. In the Old Testament, Jeroboam is signalized as a sinner of unparalleled atrocity, because he Bade Israel to sin. In the New Testament, the judgment of the Pharisees has been already alluded to. And, again, “Whosoever shall break the least of these commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” By comparison with the preceding verse, the meaning of this passage is seen to be, that, as the doing and teaching the commandments of God is the great proof of virtue, so the breaking them, and the teaching others to break them, is the great proof of vice. And, in the Revelation, where God is represented as taking signal vengeance upon Babylon, it is because “she did corrupt the earth with her wickedness.”

The moral precept on this subject, then, is briefly this: we are forbidden, for any cause, or under any pretense, or in any manner, willingly to vitiate the character of another.

This prohibition may be violated in two ways:

1. By weakening the moral restraints of men.

2. By exciting their evil passions.

I. By WEAKENING THE MORAL RESTRAINTS OF MEN.

It has been already shown, that the passions of men were intended to be restrained by conscience; and that the restraining power of conscience is increased by the doctrines and motives derived from natural and revealed religion. Whoever, therefore, in any manner, renders obtuse the moral sensibilities of others, or diminishes the power of that moral truth by which these sensibilities are rendered operative, inflicts permanent injury upon the character of his fellow-men. This also is done by all wicked example; for, as we have seen before, the sight of wickedness weakens the power of conscience over us. It is done when, either by conversation or by writing, the distinctions between right and wrong are treated with open scorn or covert contempt; by all conduct calculated to render inoperative the sanctions of religion, as profanity, or Sabbath breaking; by ridicule of the obligations of morality and religion, under the names of superstition, priestcraft, prejudices of education; or, by presenting to men such views of the character of God as would lead them to believe that He cares very little about the moral actions of his creatures, but is willing that every one shall live as he chooses; and that, therefore, the self-denials of virtue are only a form of gratuitous, self-inflicted torture.

It is against this form of moral injury that the young need to be specially upon their guard. The moral seducer, if he be a practiced villain, corrupts the principles of his victim before he attempts to influence his or her practice. It is not until the moral restraints are silently removed, and the heart left defenseless, that he presents the allurements of vice, and goads the passions to madness His task is then easy. If he have succeeded in the first effort, he will rarely fail in the second. Let every young man, especially every young woman, beware of listening for a moment to any conversation, of which the object is, to show that the restraints of virtue are unnecessary, or to diminish, in aught, the reverence and obedience, which are due from the creature to the law of the Creator.

II. We injure the characters of men BY EXCITING TO ACTION THEIR EVIL DISPOSITIONS.

II. By viciously stimulating their imaginations. No one is corrupt in action, until he has become corrupt in imagination. And, on the other hand, he who has filled his imagination with conceptions of vice, and who loves to feast his depraved moral appetite with imaginary scenes of impurity, needs but the opportunity to become openly abandoned. Hence, one of the most nefarious means of corrupting men, is to spread before them those images of pollution, by which they will, in secret, become familiar with sin. Such is the guilt of those who write, or publish, or sell, or lend, vicious books, under whatever name or character, and of those who engrave, or publish, or sell, or lend, or exhibit, obscene or lascivious pictures. Few instances of human depravity are marked by deeper atrocity, than that of an author, or a publisher, who, from literary vanity, or sordid love of gain, pours forth over society a stream of moral pollution, either in prose or in poetry.

And yet, there are not only men who will do this, but, what is worse, there are men, yes, and women, too, who, If the culprit have possessed talent, will commend it, and even weep tears of sympathy over the infatuated genius, who was so sorely persecuted by that unfeeling portion of the world, who would not consider talent synonymous with virtue, and who could not applaud the effort of that ability which was exerted only to multiply the victims of vice.

2. By ministering to the appetites of others. Such is the relation of the power of appetite to that of conscience, that, where no positive allurements to vice are set before men, conscience will frequently retain its ascendency. While, on the other hand, if allurement be added to the power of appetite, reason and conscience prove a barrier too feeble to resist their combined and vicious tendency hence, he who presents the allurements of vice before others, who procures and sets before them the means of vicious gratification, is, in a great degree, responsible for the mischief which he produces. Violations of this law occur in most cases of immoral traffic, as in the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors, the sale of opium to the Chinese, etc. Under the same class, is also comprehended the case of female prostitution.

3. By using others to minister to our vicious appetites. We cannot use others as ministers to our vices, without rendering them corrupt, and frequently inflicting an incurable wound upon their moral nature. For the sake of a base and wicked momentary gratification, the vicious man willingly ruins for ever an immortal being, who was, but for him, innocent; and, yet more, not unfrequently considers this ruin a matter of triumph. Such is the case in seduction and adultery, and, in a modified degree, in all manner of lewdness and profligacy.

4. By cherishing the evil passions of men. By passion, in distinction from appetite, I mean the spiritual in opposition to the corporeal desires. It frequently happens, that we wish to influence men, who cannot be moved by m appeal to their reason or conscience, but who can be easily moved by an appeal to their ambition, their avarice, heir party zeal, their pride, or their vanity. An acquaintance with these peculiarities of individuals, is frequently called, understanding human nature, knowing the weak sides of men, and is, by many persons, considered the grand means for great and masterly effect. But he can have but little practical acquaintance with a conscience void of offence, who does not instinctively feel that such conduct is unjust, mean and despicable. It is accomplishing our purposes, by means of the moral degradation to him of whom we profess to be the friends. It is manifestly doing a man a greater injury that simply to rob him. If we stole his money, he would be injured only by being made poorer. If we procure his services or his money in this manner, we also make him poorer; and we besides cultivate those evil dispositions, which already expose him to sharpers; and also render vim more odious to the God before whom he must shortly stand.

Nor do the ordinary excuses on this subject avail. It may be said, men would not give to benevolent objects, but from these motives. Suppose it true. What if they did not? They would be as well off, morally, as they are now. A man is no better, after having refused from avarice, who, at length, gives from vanity. His avarice is no better, and his vanity is even worse. It may be said, the cause of benevolence could not be sustained without it. Then, I say, let the cause of benevolence perish. God never meant one party of his creatures to be relieved, by our inflicting moral injury upon another. If there be no other way of sustaining benevolence, God did not mean that benevolence should be sustained. But it is not so. The appeal to men’s better feelings is the proper appeal to be made to men. It will, when properly made, generally succeed; and if it do not, our responsibility is at an end.

I cannot leave this subject, without urging it upon those who are engaged in promoting the objects of benevolent associations. It seems to me, that no man has a right to present any other than an innocent motive, to urge his fellow-men to action. Motives derived from party zeal, from personal vanity, from love of applause, however covertly insinuated, are not of this character. If a man, by exciting such feelings, sold me a horse at twice its value, he would be a sharper. If he excite me to give from the same motives, the action partakes of the same character. The cause of benevolence is holy: it is the cause of God. It needs not human chicanery to approve it to the human heart. Let him who advocates it, therefore, go forth strong in the strength of Him whose cause he advocates. Let him rest his cause upon its own merits, and leave every man’s conscience to decide whether or not he will enlist himself in its support. And, besides, were men conscientiously to confine themselves to the merits of their cause, they would much more carefully weigh their undertakings, before they attempted to enlist others in support of them. Much of that fanaticism, which withers the moral sympathies of man, would thus be checked at the outset.