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

Francis Wayland


Of Virtue In General

IT has been already remarked, that we find ourselves so constituted, as to stand in various relations to all the beings around us, especially to our fellow-men, and to God. There may be, and there probably are, other beings, to whom, by our creation, we are related: but we, as yet, have no information on the subject; and we must wait until we enter upon another state, before the fact, and the manner of the fact, be revealed.

In consequence of these relations, and either by the appointment of God, or from the necessity of the case, if, indeed, these terms mean any thing different from each other, there arise moral obligations to exercise certain affections towards other beings, and to act towards them in a manner corresponding to those affections. Thus, we are taught in the Scriptures, that the relation in which we stand to Deity, involves the obligation to universal and unlimited obedience and love; and that the relation in which we stand to each other, involves the obligation to love, limited and restricted; and, of course, to a mode of conduct, in all respects, correspondent to these affections.

An action is right, when it corresponds to these obligations, or, which is the same thing, is the carrying into effect of these affections. It is wrong, when it is in violation of these obligations, or is the carrying into effect of any other affections.

By means of our intellect, we become conscious of the relations in which we stand to the beings with whom we are connected. Thus, by the exertion of our intellectual faculties, we become acquainted with the existence and attributes of God, his power, his wisdom, his goodness, and it is by these same faculties, that we understand and verify those declarations of the Scriptures, which give us additional knowledge of his attributes; and by which we arrive at a knowledge of the conditions of our being, as creatures, and also of the various relations in which we stand to each other.

Conscience, as has been remarked, is that faculty by which we become conscious of the obligations arising from these relations; by which we perceive the quality of right in those actions which correspond to these obligations, and of wrong in those actions which violate them; and by which we are impelled towards the one, and repelled from the other. It is, manifestly, the design of this faculty to suggest to us this feeling of obligation, as soon as the relations on which it is founded, are understood; and thus to excite in us the corresponding affections.

Now, in a perfectly constituted moral and intellectual being, it is evident, that there would be a perfect adjustment between these external qualities and the internal faculties. A perfect eye is an eye that, under the proper conditions, would discern every variety and shade of color, in every object which it was adapted to perceive. The same remark would apply to our hearing, or to any other sense. So, a perfectly constituted intellect would, under the proper conditions, discern the relations in which the being stood to other beings; and a perfectly constituted conscience would, at the same time, become conscious of all the obligations which arose from such relations, and would impel us to the corresponding courses of conduct. That is, there would exist a perfect adaptation between the external qualities which were addressed to these faculties, and the faculties themselves, to which these qualities were addressed.

Hence, in a being thus perfectly constituted, it is manifest, that virtue, the doing of right, or obedience to conscience, would mean the same thing.

When, however, we speak of the perfection of a moral organization, we speak of the perfection of adjustment between the faculty of conscience, and the relations and obligations under which the particular being is created. Hence, this very perfection admits of various gradations aid modifications. For example:

1. The relations of the same being change, during the progress of its existence, from infancy, through childhood and manhood, until old age. This change of relations involves a change of obligations; and the perfection of its moral organization would consist in the perfect adjustment of its moral faculty to its moral relations, throughout the whole course of its history. Now, the tendency of this change is, manifestly, from less to greater; that is, from less imperative to more imperative, and from less numerous to more numerous obligations. That is, the tendency of the present system is to render beings more and more capacious of virtue and of vice, as. far as we are permitted to have any knowledge of them.

2. As it is manifestly impossible for us to conceive either how numerous, or how important, may be our relations to other creatures, in another state, or how much more intimate may be the relations in which we shall stand to our Creator; and, as there can be no limit conceived to our power of comprehending these relations, nor to our power of becoming conscious of the obligations which they involve; so, it is manifest, that no limit can be conceived to the progress of man’s capacity for virtue. It evidently contains within itself elements adapted to infinite improvement, in any state in which we may exist.

3. And the same may be said of vice. As our obligations must, from what we already know, continue to increase, and our power for recognizing them must also continue to increase; if we perpetually violate them, we become more and more capable of wrong; and thus, also, become more and more intensely vicious. And thus, the very elements of a moral constitution, seem to involve the necessity of illimitable progress, either in virtue or in vice, so long as we exist.

4. And as, on the one hand, we can have no conception of the amount of attainment, both in virtue and vice, of which man is capable, so, on the other hand, we can have no conception of the delicacy of that moral tinge by which his character is first designated. We detect moral character at a very early age; but this by no means proves, that it aid not exist long before we detected it. Hence, as it may thus have existed before we were able to detect it, it is manifest that we have no elements by which to determine the time of its commencement. That is to say, in general, we are capable of observing moral qualities within certain limits, as from childhood to old age; but this is no manner of indication that these qualities may not exist in the being both before, and afterwards, in degrees greatly below and infinitely above any thing which we are capable of observing.