The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

That man, thus constituted, is a creature capable of moral direction, and accountable for his actions.

I. AFTER having seen the nature of man, considered in respect to right, the result is, that he is a creature really susceptible of choice and direction in his conduct. For, since he is capable, by means of his faculties, of knowing the nature and state of things, and of judging from this knowledge; since he is invested with the power of determining between two or several offers, made to him; in fine, since, with the assistance of liberty, he is able in certain cases to suspend, or continue has actions, as he judges proper; it evidently follows, that he is master of his own actions, and that he exercises a kind of authority and command over them, by virtue of which he can direct and turn them which way he pleases. Hence it appears how necessary it was for us to set out, as we have done, with inquiring previously into the nature and faculties of man. For how could we have discovered the rules, by which he is to square his conduct, unless we antecedently know in what manner he acts, and what are the springs, as it were, that put him in motion?

II. Another remark, which is a consequence of the foregoing, is, that, since man is the immediate author of his actions, he is accountable for them; and injustice and reason they can be imputed to him. This is a pout, of which we think it necessary to give here a short explication.

The term imputing is borrowed of arithmetic, and signifies properly to set a sum down to somebody’s account. To impute an action therefore to a person is to attribute it to him, as to its real author; to set it down as it were to his account and make him answerable for it. Now it is evidently an essential quality of human actions, as produced and directed by the understanding and will, to be susceptible of imputation; that is, it is plain that man can be justly considered, as the author and productive cause of those actions, and that for this very reason it is right to make him accountable for them, and lay to his charge the effects, that arise from them, as natural consequences. In fact, the true reason, why a person cannot complain of being made answerable for an action, is that he has produced it himself knowingly and willingly. Every thing almost, that is said and done in human society, supposes this principle generally received, and every body acquiesces in it from an inward conviction.

III. We must therefore lay down, as an incontestable and fundamental principle of the imputability of human actions, that every voluntary action is susceptible of imputation; or to express the same thing in other terms, that every action or omission, subject to the direction of man, can be charged to the account of the person, in whose power it was to do it or let it alone; and on the contrary every action, whose existence or nonexistence does not depend on our will, cannot be imputed to us. Observe here, that omissions are ranked by civilians and moralists among the number of actions; because they apprehend them, as the effect of a voluntary suspension of the exercise of our faculties.

Such is the foundation of imputability, and the true reason, why an action or omission is of an imputable nature. But we must take particular notice, that, though an action is imputable it does not ensue from that only, that it merits actually to be imputed. Imputability and imputation are two things, which we should carefully distinguish. The latter supposes, besides the imputability, some moral necessity of acting or not after a certain manner; or, which amounts to the same, some obligation, that requires a thing to be done, or omitted, that can be really done or omitted.

Puffendorf1 does not seem to have sufficiently distinguished between these two ideas. It is enough for our present purpose to point out the distinction, defering to treat of actual imputation, and to establish principles thereof, till we have explained the nature of obligation, and shown that man is actually obliged to conform his actions to rule.

What has been hitherto advanced, properly regards the nature of the human mind; or the internal faculties of man, as they render him capable of moral direction. But in order to complete our knowledge of human nature, we should view it likewise in its extrinsic condition, in its wants and dependancies, and in the various relations, wherein it is placed; in fine, in what we may call the different states of man. For it is our situation in life, that decides the use, we ought to make of our faculties.


   1.    See the Law of nature and nations, book i. chap. v. § 5, and the Duties of man and a citizen, book i. § 17.