The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)

Jean Jacques Burlamaqui

Of the means, by which we discern what is just and unjust, or what is
dictated by natural law; namely, 1. moral instinct, and 2. reason.

I. WHAT has been said in the preceding chapter already shows, that God has invested us with two means of perceiving or discerning moral good and evil; the first is only a kind of instinct; the second is reason or judgment.

Moral instinct I call that natural bent or inclination, which prompts us to approve of certain things as good and commendable, and to condemn others as bad and blameable, independent of reflection. Or if any one has a mind to distinguish this instinct by the name of moral sense, as Mr. Hutchinson has done, I shall then say, that it is a faculty of the mind, which instantly discerns, in certain cases, moral good and evil, by a kind of sensation and taste, independent of reason and reflection.

II. Thus, at the sight of a man in misery or pain, we feel immediately a sense of compassion, which prompts us to relieve him. The first emotion, that strikes us, after receiving a benefit, is to acknowledge the favor, and to thank our benefactor. The first disposition of one man towards another, abstracting from any particular reason he may have of hatred or fear, is a sense of benevolence, as towards his fellow creature, with whom he finds himself connected by a conformity of nature and wants. We likewise observe, that, without any great thought or reasoning, a child, or untutored peasant, is sensible that ingratitude is a vice, and exclaims against perfidy, as a black and unjust action, which highly shocks him, and is absolutely repugnant to his nature. On the contrary, to keep one’s word, to be grateful for a benefit, to pay every body their due, to honor our parents, to comfort those, who are in distress or misery, are all so many actions, which we cannot but approve and esteem as just, good, honest, beneficent, and useful to mankind. Hence the mind is pleased to see or hear such acts of equity, sincerity, humanity and beneficence; the heart is touched and moved; and reading them in history we are seized with admiration, and extol the happiness of the age, nation, or family, distinguished by such noble examples. As for criminal instances, we cannot see or hear them mentioned without contempt or indignation.

III. If any one should ask, whence comes this emotion of the heart, which prompts us, almost without any reasoning or inquiry, to love some actions, and to detest others? The only answer, I am able to give, is, that it proceeds from the author of our being, who has formed us after this manner, and whom it has pleased that our nature or constitution should be such, that the difference of moral good and evil should, in some cases, affect us exactly in the same manner, as physical good and evil. It is therefore a kind of instinct, like several others, which nature has given us, in order to determine us with more expedition and vigour, where reflection would be too slow. It is thus we are informed of our corporeal wants by our inward sense; while our outward senses acquaint us with the quality of the objects, that may be useful or prejudicial to us, in order to lead us, as it were, mechanically to whatever is requisite for our preservation. Such is also the instinct, that attaches us to life, and the desire of happiness, the primum mobile of all our actions. Such is likewise the almost blind, but necessary tenderness of parents towards their children. The pressing and indispensable wants of man required that he should be directed by the way of sense, which is always quicker and readier, than that of reason.

IV. God has therefore thought proper to use this method in respect to the moral conduct of man, by imprinting within us a sense or taste of virtue and justice, which anticipates, in some measure, our reason, decides our first motions, and happily supplies, in most men, the want of attention or reflection. For what numbers of people would never trouble their heads with reflecting? What multitudes there are of stupid wretches, who lead a mere animal life, and are scarce able to distinguish three or four ideas, in order to form what is called ratiocination? It was therefore our particular advantage, that the Creator should give us a discernment of good and evil, with a love for the one, and an aversion for the other, by means of a quick and lively kind of faculty, which has no necessity to wait for the speculations of the mind.

[Objection. These sensations are not found in all men. Answer. 1. We find some traces of them among the most savage people.]

V. If any one should dispute the reality of these sensations, by saying they are not to be found in all men, because there are savage people, who seem to have none at all; and even among civilized nations we meet with such perverse and stubborn minds, as do not appear to have any notion or sense of virtue; I answer, 1. that the most savage people have nevertheless the first ideas above mentioned; and, if there are some, who seem to give no outward signs or demonstrations thereof, this is owing to our not being sufficiently acquainted with their manners; or because they are intirely stupified, and have stifled almost all sentiments of humanity; or in fine by reason, that in some respects they fall into an abuse contrary to those principles, not by rejecting them positively, but through some prejudice, that has prevailed over their good sense and natural rectitude, and inclines them to make a bad application of these principles. For example, we see savages, who devour their enemies, whom they have made prisoners, imagining it to be the right of war, and, since they have liberty to kill them, nothing ought to hinder them from benefitting by their flesh, as their proper spoils. But those very savages would not treat in that manner their friends or countrymen. They have laws and rules among themselves; sincerity and a plain dealing are esteemed there, as in other places, and a grateful heart meets with as much commendation among them, as with us.

[2. We must distinguish between the natural state of man, and that of his depravation.]

VI. With regard to those, who, in the most enlightened and civilized countries, seem to be void of all shame, humanity, or justice, we must take care to distinguish between the natural state of man, and the depravation, into which he may fall by abuse, and in consequence of irregularity and debauch. For example, what can be more natural, than paternal tenderness? And yet we have seen men, who seemed to have stifled it, through violence of passion, or by force of a present temptation, which suspended for a while this natural affection. What can be stronger than the love of ourselves and of our own preservation? It happens nevertheless, that whether through anger, or some other motion, which throws the soul out of its natural position, a man tears his own limbs, squanders his substance, or does himself some great prejudice, as if he were bent on his own misery and destruction.

[3. If there be any monsters in the moral order, they are very rare, and no consequence can be drawn from them.]

VII. 3. In fine, if there are people, who cooly and without any agitation of mind seem to have divested themselves of all affection and esteem for virtue, (besides that monsters like these are as rare, I hope, in the moral, as in the physical world,) we only see thereby the effects of an exquisite and inveterate depravation. For man is not born thus corrupted; but the interest he has in excusing and palliating his vices, the habit he has contracted, and the sophistical arguments, to which he has recourse, may stifle in fine, or corrupt the moral sense, of which we have been speaking; as we see that every other faculty of the soul or body may, by long abuse, be altered or corrupted. The principle is almost always preserved; it is a fire, that, when it seems to be even extinct, may kindle again and throw out some glimmerings of light, as we have seen examples in very profligate men, under particular conjunctures.

[Second means of discerning moral good and evil; which is reason.]

VIII. But notwithstanding God has implanted in us this instinct of sense, as the first means of discerning moral good and evil, yet he has not stopt here; he has also thought proper, that the same light, which serves to direct us in every thing else, that is reason, should come to our assistance, in order to enable us the better to discern and comprehend the true rules of conduct.

Reason I call the faculty of comparing ideas, of investigating the mutual relations of things, and thence inferring just consequences. This noble faculty, which is the directress of the mind, serves to illustrate, to prove, to extend, and apply what our natural sense already gave us to understand, in relation to justice and injustice. As reflection, instead of diminishing paternal tenderness, tends to strengthen it, by making as observe how agreeable it is to the relation of father and son, to the advantage not only of a family, but of the whole species; in like manner the natural sense, we have of the beauty and excellence of virtue, is considerably improved by the reflections, we are taught by reason, in regard to the foundations, motives, relations, and the general as well as particular uses of this same virtue, which seemed so beautiful to us at first sight.

[First advantage of reason in respect to instinct; it serves to verify it.]

IX. We may even affirm, that the light of reason has three advantages in respect to this instinct or sense.

1. It contributes to prove its truth and exactness; in the same manner as we observe in other things, that study and rules serve to verify the exactness of taste, by showing us it is neither blind nor arbitrary, but founded on reason, and directed by principles; or as those, who are quick sighted, judge with greater certainty of the distance or figure of an object, after having compared, examined, and measured it quite at their leisure, than if they had depended intirely on the first sight. We find likewise, that there are opinions and customs, which make so strong and so general in impression on our minds, that to judge of them only by the sentiment, they excite, we should be in danger of mistaking prejudice for truth. It is reason’s province to rectify this erroneous judgment, and to counterbalance this effect of education, by setting before us the true principles, on which we ought to judge of things.

[Second advantage: it unfolds the principles, and thence infers proper consequences.]

X. 2. A second advantage, which reason has in respect to simple instinct, is, that it unfolds the ideas better, by considering them in all their relations and consequences. For we frequently see that those, who have had only the first notion, find themselves embarrassed and mistaken, when they are to apply it to a case of the least delicate or complicated nature. They are sensible indeed of the general principles, but they do not know how to follow them through their different branches, to make the necessary distinctions or exceptions, or to modify them according to time and place. This is the business of reason, which it discharges so much the better, in proportion as there is care taken to exercise and improve it.

[Third advantage: reason is an universal means and applicable to all cases.]

XI. 3. Reason not only carries its views farther than instinct, with respect to the unfolding and application of principles, but has also a more extensive sphere, in regard to the very principles it discovers, and the objects it embraces. For instinct has been given us only for a small number of simple cases, relative to our natural state, and which require a quick determination. But besides those simple cases, where it is proper, that man should be drawn and determined by a first motion; there are cases of a more composite nature, which arise from the different states of man, from the combination of certain circumstances, and from the particular situation of each person; on all which it is impossible to form any rules but by reflection, and by an attentive observation of the relations and agreements of each thing.

Such are the two faculties, with which God has invested us, in order to enable us to discern between good and evil. These faculties happily joined, and subordinate one to the other, concur to the same effect. One gives the first notice, the other verifies and proves it; one acquaints us with the principles, the other applies and unfolds them; one serves for a guide in the most pressing and necessary cases, the other distinguishes all sorts of affinity or relation, and lays down rules for the most particular cases.

It is thus we are enabled to discern what is good and just, or, which amounts to the same thing, to know what is the divine will, in respect to the moral conduct we are to observe. Let us unite at present these two means, in order to find the principles of the law of nature.