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

Francis Wayland


In What Part Of An Action Do We Discover Its Moral Quality?

In a deliberate action, four distinct elements may be commonly observed. These are —

1. The outward act, as when I put money into the hands of another.
2. The conception of this act, of which the external performance is the mere bodying forth.
3. The resolution to carry that conception into effect.
4. The intention, or design, with which all this is done.

Now, the moral quality does not belong to the external act; for the same external act may be performed by two men, while its moral character is, in the two cases, entirely dissimilar.

Nor does it belong to the conception of the external act, nor to the resolution to carry that conception into effect; for the resolution to perform an action can have no other character than that of the action itself. It must, then, reside in the intention.

That such is the fact, may be illustrated by an example. A and B both give to C a piece of money. They both conceived of this action before they performed it. They both resolved to do precisely what they did. In all this, both actions coincide. A, however, gave it to C, with the intention of procuring the murder of a friend; B, with the intention of relieving a family in distress. It is evident that, in this case, the intention gives to the action its character as right or wrong.

That the moral quality of the action resides in the intention, may be evident from various other considerations.

1. By reference to the intention, we inculpate or exculpate others, or ourselves, without any respect to the happiness or misery actually produced. Let the result of an action be what it may, we hold a man guilty simply on the ground of intention, or, on the same ground, we hold him innocent. Thus, also, of ourselves. We are conscious of guilt or of innocence, not from the result of an action, but from the intention by which we were actuated.

2. We always distinguish between being the instrument of good, and intending it. We are grateful to one who is the cause of good, not in the proportion of the amount effected, but of the amount intended.

Intention may be wrong in various ways.

As, for instance, first, where we intend to injure another, as in cruelty, malice, revenge, deliberate slander.

Here, however, it may be remarked, that we may intend to inflict pain, without intending wrong; for we may be guilty of the violation of no right. Such is the case, when pain is inflicted for the purposes of justice; for it is manifest, that, if a man deserve pain, it is no violation of right to inflict it. Hence we see the difference between harm, injury, and punishment. We harm another when we actually inflict pain; we injure him when we inflict pain in violation of his rights; we punish him when we inflict pain which he deserves, and to which he has been properly adjudged — and, in so doing, there is, therefore, a violation of no right.

2. Intention is wrong, where we act for the gratification of our own passions, without any respect to the happiness of others. Such is the case of seduction, ambition, and, in nations, commonly of war. Every man is bound to restrain the indulgence of his passions within such limits, that they will work no ill to his neighbor. If they actually inflict injury, it is no excuse to say that he had no ill will to the individual injured. The Creator never conferred on him the right to destroy another’s happiness for his own gratification.

3. As the right and wrong of an action reside in the intention, it is evident, that, where an action is intended, though it be not actually performed, that intention is worthy of praise or blame, as truly as the action itself, provided the action itself be wholly out of our power. Thus God rewarded David for intending to build the temple, though he did not permit him actually to build it. So, he who intends to murder another, though he may fail to execute his purpose, is, in the sight of God, a murderer. The meditation upon wickedness with pleasure, comes under the same condemnation.

4. As the right or wrong exists in the intention, wherever a particular intention is essential to virtuous action, the performance of the external act, without that intention, is destitute of the element of virtue. Thus, a child is bound to obey his parents, with the intention of thus manifesting his love and gratitude. If he do it from fear, or from hope of gain, the act is destitute of the virtue of filial obedience, and becomes merely the result of passion or self-interest. And thus our Savior charges upon the Jews the want of the proper intention, in all their dealings with God. “I know you,” said he, “that ye have not the love of God in you.”

And, again, it is manifest, that our moral feelings, like our taste, may be excited by the conceptions of our own imagination, scarcely less than by the reality. These, therefore, may develop moral character. He who meditates, with pleasure, upon fictions of pollution and crime whether originating with himself or with others, renders it evident that nothing but opposing circumstances prevents him from being himself an actor in the crime which he loves. And still more, as the moral character of an action resides in the intention, and as whatever tends to corrupt the intention must be wrong, the meditating with pleasure upon vice, which has manifestly this tendency, must be wrong also.

And here let me add, that the imagination of man is the fruitful parent both of virtue and vice. Thus saith the wise man, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.” No man becomes openly a villain, until his imagination has become familiar with conceptions of villainy. The crimes which astonish us by their atrocity, were first arranged, and acted, and reacted, in the recesses of the criminal’s own mind. Let the imagination, then, be most carefully guarded, if we wish to escape from temptation, and make progress in virtue. Let no one flatter himself that he is innocent, if he love to meditate upon any thing which he would blush to avow before men, or fear to unveil before God.