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

Francis Wayland


What Is A Moral Action?

Action, from actum, the supine of the Latin verb ago, I do, signifies something done; the putting forth of some power.

But under what circumstances must power be put forth, in order to render it a moral action?

1. A machine is, in common conversation, said to be powerful. A vegetable is said to put forth its leaves, a tree to bend its branches, or a vine to run towards a prop but we never speak of these instances of power, as actions.

2. Action is never affirmed, but of beings possessed of a will; that is, of those in whom the putting forth of power is immediately consequent upon their determination to put it forth. Could we conceive of animate beings, whose exertions had no connection with their will, we should not speak of such exertions as actions.

3. Action, so far as we know, is affirmed only of beings possessed of intelligence; that is, who are capable of comprehending a particular end, and of adopting the means necessary to accomplish it. An action is something done; bat is, some change effected. But man effects change only by means of stated antecedents. An action, therefore, in such a being, supposes some change in view, and some means employed for the purpose of effecting it.

We do not, however, affirm this as essential. Suppose a being so constituted as to be able to effect changes without the use of means; action would then not involve the necessity of intelligence, in the sense in which it is here explained. All that would be necessary, would be the previous conception of the change which he intended to effect.

4. All this exists in man. He is voluntary and intelligent, capable of foreseeing the result of an exertion of power, and that exertion of power is subject to his will. This is sufficient to render man the subject of government. He can foresee the results of a particular action, and can will, or not will, to accomplish it. And other results can be connected with the action, of such a nature, as to influence his will in one direction or in another. Thus, a man may know that stabbing another will produce death. He has it in his power to will or not to will it. But such other consequences may be connected by society with the act, that, though on many accounts he would desire to do it, yet, on other and graver accounts, he would prefer not to do it. This is sufficient to render man a subject of government. But is this all that is necessary to constitute man a moral agent; that is, to render him a subject of moral government?

May not all this be affirmed of brutes? Are they not voluntary, and even, to some extent, intelligent agents? Do they not, frequently, at least, comprehend the relation of means to an end, and voluntarily put forth the power necessary for the accomplishment of that end? Do they not manifestly design to injure us, and also select the most appropriate means for effecting their purpose? And can we not connect such results with their actions, as shall influence their will, and prevent or excite the exercise of their power? We do this, whenever we caress or intimidate them, to prevent them from injuring us, or to excite them to labor. They are, then, subjects of government, as truly as man.

Is there, then, no difference between the intelligent und voluntary action of a brute, and the moral action of a man? Suppose a brute and a man both to perform the same action; as, for instance, suppose the brute to kill its offspring, and the man to murder his child. Are these actions of the same character? Do we entertain the same feelings towards the authors of them? Do we treat the authors in the same manner, and with the design of producing in them the same result?

I think no one can answer these questions in the affirmative. We pity the brute, but we are filled with indignation against the man. In the one case, we say there has been harm done; in the other, injury committed. We feel that the man deserves punishment: we have no such feeling towards the brute. We say that the man has done wrong; but we never affirm this of the brute. We may attempt to produce in the brute such a recollection of the offence, as may deter him from the act in future; but we can do no more. We attempt, in the other case, to make the man sensible of the act as wrong, and to produce in him a radical change of character; so that he not only would not commit the crime again, but would be inherently averse to the commission of it.

These considerations are, I think, sufficient to render it evident, that we perceive an element in the actions of men, which does not exist in the actions of brutes. What is this element?

If we should ask a child, he would tell us that the man knows better. This would be his mode of explaining it.

But what is meant by knowing better? Did not the brute and the man both know that the result of their action would be harm? Did not both intend that it should be harm? In what respect, then, did the one know better than the other?

I think that a plain man or a child would answer, the man knew that he ought not to do it, and that the brute did not know that he ought not to do it; or he might say, the man knew, and the brute did not know, that it was wrong: but whatever terms he might employ, they would involve the same idea. I do not know that a philosopher could give a more satisfactory answer.

If the question, then, be asked, what is a moral action we may answer, it is the voluntary action of an intelligent agent, who is capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, or of distinguishing what he ought, from what he ought not, to do.

It is, however, to be remarked, that, although action is defined to be the putting forth of power, it is not intended to be asserted, that the moral quality exists only where power is actually exerted. It is manifest, that our thoughts and resolutions may be deserving either of praise or of blame; that is, may be either right or wrong, where they do not appear in action. When the will consents to the performance of an action, though the act be not done, the omniscient Deity justly considers us as either virtuous or vicious.

From what has been said, it may be seen that there exists, in the actions of men, an element which does not exist in the actions of brutes. Hence, though both are subjects of government, the government of the one should be constructed upon principles different from that of the other. We can operate upon brutes only by fear of punishment, and hope of reward. We can operate upon man, not only in this manner, but, also, by an appeal to his consciousness of right and wrong; and by the use of such means as may improve his moral nature. Hence, all modes of punishment which treat men as we treat brutes, are as unphilosophical as they are thoughtless, cruel and vindictive. Such are those systems of criminal jurisprudence, which have in view nothing more than the infliction of pain upon the offender. The leading object of all such systems should be to reclaim the vicious. Such was the result to which all the investigations of Howard led. Such is the improvement which Prison Discipline Societies are laboring to effect.

And it is worthy of remark, that the Christian precept respecting the treatment of injuries, proceeds precisely upon this principle. The New Testament teaches us to love our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, to overcome evil with good; that is, to set before a man who do wrong, the strongest possible exemplification of the opposite moral quality, right. Now, it is manifest, that nothing would be so likely to show to an injurious person the turpitude of his own conduct, and to produce in him self-reproach and repentance, as precisely this sort of moral exhibition. Revenge and retaliation might, or might not, prevent a repetition of the injury to a particular individual. The requiting of evil with good, in addition to this effect, has an inherent tendency to produce sorrow for the act, and dislike to its moral quality; and thus, by producing a change of character, to prevent the repetition of the offence under all circumstances hereafter.