The Principles of Natural and Politic Law (1748)
Jean Jacques Burlamaqui
Consequences of the preceding chapter; reflections on the distinctions of just, honest, and useful.
1. THE reflections, contained in the foregoing chapter, give us to understand, that there is a vast deal of ambiguity and mistake in the different sentiments of writers, in relation to morality or the foundation of natural laws. They do not always ascend to the first principles, neither do they define and distinguish exactly; they suppose an opposition between ideas, that are reconciled, and ought even to be joined together. Some reason in too abstract a manner on the human system; and, following only their own metaphysical speculations, never attend sufficiently to the actual state of things, and to the natural dependance of man. Others, considering principally this dependance, reduce the whole to the will and orders of the sovereign master, and seem thus to lose sight of the very nature and internal constitution of man, from which it cannot however be separated. These different ideas are just in themselves; yet we must not establish the one by excluding the other, or by explaining it to the other’s prejudice. Reason, on the contrary, requires us to unite them, in order to find the true principles of the human system, whose foundations must be sought for in the nature and state of man.
II. It is very common to use the words utility, justice, honesty, order, and fitness; but these different notions are seldom defined in an exact manner, and some of them are frequently confounded. This want of exactness must necessarily create ambiguity and confusion; wherefore, if we intend to make things clear, we must take care to define and distinguish properly.
An useful action may methinks be defined that, which of itself tends to the preservation and perfection of man.
A just action that, which is considered as conformable to the will of a superior, who commands.
An action is called honest, when it is considered as conformable to the maxims of right reason, agreeable to the dignity of our nature, deserving of the approbation of man, and consequently procuring respect and honor to the person, who does it.
By order we can understand nothing else, but the disposition of several things, relative to a certain end, and proportioned to the effect we intend to produce.
Finally, as to fitness or agreeableness, it bears a very great affinity with order. It is a relation of conformity between several things, one of which is of itself proper for the preservation and perfection of the other, and contributes to maintain it in a good and advantageous state.
[Just, honest, and useful, are distinct things, and must not be confounded.]
III. We must not therefore confound the words just, useful, and honest; for they are three distinct ideas. But, though distinct from one another, they have no opposition; they are three relations, which may all agree, and be applied to one single action, considered under different respects. And, if we ascend so high as the first origin, we shall find, that they are all derived from one common source, or from one and the same principle, as three branches from the same stock. This general principle is the approbation of reason. Reason necessarily approves whatever conducts us to real happiness; and as that, which is agreeable to the preservation and perfection of man, that, which is conformable to the will of the sovereign master, on whom he depends, and that, which procures him the esteem and respect of his equals; as all this, I say, contributes to his happiness, reason cannot but approve of each of these things separately considered, much less can it help approving, under different respects, an action, in which all these properties are found united.
[But though they are distinct, yet they are naturally connected.]
IV. For such is the state of things, that the ideas of just, honest, and useful, are naturally connected, and as it were inseparable; at least if we attend, as we ought to do, to real, general, and lasting utility. We may say, that such an utility becomes a kind of characteristic to distinguish what is truly just, or honest, from what is so only in the erroneous opinions of men. This is a beautiful and judicious remark of Cicero.1 The language and opinions of men are very wide, says he, from truth and right reason, In separating the honest from the useful, and in persuading themselves, that some honest things are not useful, and other things are useful but not honest. This Is a dangerous notion to human life. Hence we see, that Socrates detested those sophists, who first separated those two things in opinion, which In nature are really joined.
In fact, the more we investigate the plan of divine providence, the more we find the Deity has thought proper to connect the moral good and evil with the physical, or, which is the same thing, the just with the useful. And though in some particular cases the thing seems otherwise, this is only an accidental disorder, which is much less a natural consequence of the system, than an effect of the ignorance or malice of man. Whereto we must add, that, in case we do not stop at the first appearances, but proceed to consider the human system in its full extent, we shall find, that, every thing well considered, and all compensations made, these irregularities will be one day or other redressed, as we shall more fully show, when we come to treat of the sanctions of natural laws.
[Whether an action is just because God commands it.]
V. Here a question is sometimes proposed, whether a thing be just because God commands it, or whether God commands it because it is just?
Pursuant to our principles, the question is not at all difficult. A thing is just because God commands it; this is implied by the definition we gave of justice. But God commands such or such things, because these things are reasonable in themselves, conformable to the order and ends he proposed to himself in creating mankind, and agreeable to the nature and state of man. These ideas, though distinct in themselves, are necessarily connected, and can be separated only by a metaphysical abstraction.
[In what the beauty of virtue and the perfection of man consist.]
VI. Let us in fine observe, that this harmony or surprising agreement, which naturally occurs between the ideas of just, honest, and useful, constitutes the whole beauty of virtue, and informs us at the same time in what the perfection of man consists.
In consequence of the different systems above mentioned, moralists are divided with regard to the latter point. Some place the perfection of man in such a use of his faculties, as is agreeable to the nature of his being. Others in the use of our faculties and the intention of our Creator. Some in fine pretend, that man is perfect, only as his manner of thinking and acting is proper to conduct him to the end he aims at, namely his happiness.
But what we have above said sufficiently shows, that these three methods of considering the perfection of man are very little different, and ought not to be set in opposition. As they are interwoven with one another, we ought rather to combine and unite them. The perfection of man consists really in the possession of natural or acquired faculties, which enable us to obtain, and actually put us in possession of solid felicity; and this in conformity to the intention of our Creator, engraved in our nature, and clearly manifested by the state, wherein he has placed us.2
A modern writer has judiciously said, that to obey only through fear of authority, or for the hope of recompense, without esteeming or loving virtue for the sake of its own excellency, is mean and mercenary. On the contrary, to practise virtue with an abstract view of us fitness and natural beauty, without having any thought of the Creator and Conductor of the universe, is failing in our duty to the first and greatest of Beings. He only, who acts jointly through a principle of reason, through a motive of piety, and with a view of his principal interest, is an honest, wise, and pious man; which constitutes, without comparison, the worthiest and completest if characters.
1. In quo lapsa consuetude deflexit de via, sensimque eò deducta est, ut honestatem ab utilitate secernens, et constituent honestum esse aliquod, quod utile non esset, et utile, quod non honestum: quâ nulla pernicies major hominum vitæ potuit adferri. Cic. de Offic. lib. 2. cap. 3. Itaque accepimus, Socratem exsecrari solitum eos, qui primum hæc naturâ cohærentia opinione distraxissent. Idem. lib. 3. cap. 13. See likewise Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, preliminary discourse § 17. and following; and Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations, book. ii. chap. iii. § 10, 11.
2. Theory of agreeable sensations, chap. viii.