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

Francis Wayland


Of Virtue In Imperfect Beings

Let us now consider this subject in relation to a being whose moral constitution has become disordered.

Now, this disorder might be of two kinds:

1. He might not perceive all the relations in which he stood, and which gave rise to moral obligations, and, of course, would be unconscious of the corresponding obligations.

2. He might perceive the relation, but his conscience might be so disordered, as not to feel all the obligation which corresponded to it.

What shall we say concerning the actions of such a being?

1. The relations under which he is constituted are the same, and the obligations arising out of these relations are the same, as though his moral constitution had not become disordered.

2. His actions would all be comprehended under two classes:

1. Those which came, if I may so express it, within the limit of his conscience; that is, those in which his conscience did correctly intimate to him his obligation; and,

2. Those in which it did not so intimate it.

Now, of the first class of actions, it is manifest that, where conscience did correctly intimate to him his obligations, the doing of right, and obedience to conscience, would, as in the last section, be equivalent terms.

But, what shall we say of those without this limit; that is, of those which he, from the conditions of his being, is under obligation to perform; but of which, from the derangement of his moral nature, he does not perceive the obligation?

1. Suppose him to perform these very actions, there could be in them no virtue; for, the man perceiving in them no moral quality, and having towards them no moral impulsion, moral obligation could be no motive for performing them. He might act from passion, or from self-love; but, under such circumstances, as there is no moral motive, there could be no praiseworthiness. Thus, for a judge to do justice to a poor widow, is manifestly right; but, a man may do this without any moral desert; for, hear what the unjust judge saith: “Though I fear not God, nor regard man, yet, because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest, by her continual coming, she weary me.”

It does not, however, follow, that the performing of an action, in this manner, is innocent. The relation in which a being stands to other beings, involves the obligation to certain feelings, as well as to the acts correspondent to those feelings. If the act be performed, and the feeling be wanting, the obligation is not fulfilled, and the man may be guilty. How far he is guilty will be seen below.

2. But, secondly, suppose him not to perform those actions, which are, as we have said, without the limit of his conscience. In how far is the omission of these actions, or the doing of the contrary, innocent? That is to say, is the impulse of conscience, in an imperfectly constituted mora being, the limit of moral obligation?

This will, I suppose, depend upon the following considerations:

1. His knowledge of the relations in which he stands.

If he know not the relations in which he stands to others, and have not the means of knowing them, he is guiltless. If he know them, or have the means of knowing them, and have not improved these means, he is guilty. This. is, I think, the principle asserted by the Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans. He asserts, that the heathen are guilty in sinning against God, because His attributes may be known by the light of nature. He also asserts that there will be a difference between the condemnation of the Jews and that of the heathen, on the ground that the Jews were informed of many points of moral obligation, which the heathen could not have ascertained, without a revelation: “Those that sin without law, shall perish without law; and those that have sinned in the law, shall be judged by the law.”

2. His guilt will depend, secondly, on the cause of this imperfection of his conscience.

Were this imperfection of conscience not the result of his own act, he would be guiltless. But, in just so far as it is the result of his own conduct, he is responsible. And, inasmuch as imperfection of conscience, or diminution of moral capacity, can result from nothing but voluntary transgression; I suppose that he must be answerable for the whole amount of that imperfection. We have already seen, that conscience may be improved by use, and injured by disuse, or by abuse. Now, as a man is entitled to all the benefits which accrue from the faithful improvement of hi conscience, so he is responsible for all the injury that results from the abuse of it.

That this is the fact, is, I think, evident, from obvious considerations:

1. It is well known, that the repetition of wickedness produces great stupidity of conscience, or, as it is frequently termed, hardness of heart. But no one ever considers this stupidity as in any manner an excuse. It is, on the contrary, always held to be an aggravation of crime. Thus, we term a man, who has become so accustomed to crime, that he will commit murder without feeling and without regret, a remorseless murderer, a cold-blooded assassin; and every one knows that, by these epithets, we mean to designate a special and additional element of guiltiness. This I take to be the universal sentiment of man.

2. The assertion of the contrary would lead to results manifestly erroneous.

Suppose two men, of precisely the same moral attainments, today, to commence, at the same time, two courses of conduct, diametrically opposed to each other. The first, by the scrupulous doing of right, cultivates, to the utmost, his moral nature, and increases, with every day, his capacity for virtue. The sphere of his benevolent affections enlarges, and the play of his moral feelings becomes more and more intense, until he is filled with the most ardent desire to promote the welfare of every fellow-creature, and to do the will of God with his whole heart. The other, by a continued course of crime, gradually destroys the susceptibility of his conscience, and lessens his capacity for virtue, until his soul is filled with hatred to God, and no other feeling of obligation remains, except that of fidelity to his copartners in guilt.

Now, at the expiration of this period, if both of these mei should act according to what each felt to be the dictate of conscience, they would act very differently. But, if a man can be under obligation to do, and to leave undone, nothing but what his conscience, at a particular moment, indicates, I do not see but that these men would be, in the actions of that moment, equally innocent. The only difference between them, so far as the actions of a particular moment were concerned, would be the difference between a virtuous man and a virtuous child.

From these facts, we are easily led to the distinction between right and wrong, and innocence and guilt. Right and wrong depend upon the relations under which beings are created; and, hence, the obligations resulting from these relations are, in their nature, fixed and unchangeable. Guilt and innocence depend upon the knowledge of these relations, and of the obligations arising from them. As these are manifestly susceptible of variation, while right and wrong are invariable, the two notions may manifestly not always correspond to each other.

Thus, for example, an action may be wrong; but, if the actor have no means of knowing it to be wrong, he is held morally guiltless, in the doing of it. Or, again, a man may have a consciousness of obligation, and a sincere desire to act in conformity to it; and may, from ignorance of the way in which that obligation is to be discharged, perform an act in its nature wrong; yet, if he have acted according to the best of his p:ssible knowledge, he may not only be held guiltless, but even virtuous. And, on the contrary, if a man do what is actually right, but without a desire to fulfil the obligation of which he is conscious, he is held to be guilty; for he has not manifested a desire to act in obedience to the obligations under which he knew himself to be created. Illustrations of these remarks may be easily drawn from the ordinary affairs of life, or from the Scriptures.

And, hence, we also arrive at another principle, of importance in our moral judgments, namely, that our own consciousness of innocence, or our not being conscious of guilt, is by no means a sufficient proof of our innocence. A man may never have reflected on the relations in which he stands to other men, or to God; and, hence, may be conscious of no feeling of obligation toward either, in any or in particular respects. This may be the fact; but his innocence would not be established, unless he can also show that he has faithfully and impartially used all the powers which God has given him, to obtain a knowledge of these relations. Or, again, he may understand the relation, and have no corresponding sensibility. This may be the fact; but his innocency would not be established, unless he can also show that he has always faithfully and honestly obeyed his conscience, so that his moral insensibility is, in no manner, attributable to his own acts. Until these things can be shown, the want of consciousness of guilt will be no proof of innocence. To this principle, if I mistake not, the Apostle Paul alludes, in 1 Cor. 4:3, 4: “But with me, it is a very small thing to be judged of you, or of man’s judgment: yea, I judge not my ownself, for I know nothing of my ownself (or, rather, I am conscious of nothing wrong in myself; that is, of no unfaithfulness in office); yet, am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord. And, thus, a man may do great wrong, and be deeply guilty, in respect to a whole class of obligations, without being, in any painful degree, sensible of it. Such I think to be the moral state in which men, in general, are, in respect to their obligations to God. Thus, saith our Savior to the Jews: “1 know you, that ye have not the love of God in you;” while they were supposing themselves to be the special favorites of Heaven.

From these remarks, we may also learn the relation in which beings, created as we are, stand to moral law.

Man is created with moral and intellectual powers, capable of progressive improvement. Hence, if he use his faculties as he ought, he will progressively improve; that is, become more and more capable of virtue. He is assured of enjoying all the benefits which can result from such improvement. If he use these faculties as he ought not, and become less and less capable of virtue, he is hence held responsible for all the consequences of his misimprovement.

Now, as this misimprovement is his own act, for which he is responsible, it manifestly does not affect the relations under which he is created, nor the obligations resulting from these relations; that is, he stands, in respect to the moral requirements under which he is created, precisely in the same condition as if he had always used his moral powers correctly. That is to say, under the present moral constitution, every man is justly held responsible, at every period of his existence, for that degree of virtue of which he would have been capable, had he, from the first moment of his existence, improved his moral nature, in every respect, just as he ought to have done. In other words, suppose some human being to have always lived thus, (Jesus Christ, for instance,) every man, supposing him to have the same means of knowing his duty, would, at every successive period of his existence, be held responsible for the same degree of virtue as such perfect being attained to, at the corresponding periods of his existence. Such I think evidently to be the nature of the obligation which must rest upon such beings, throughout the whole extent of their duration.

In order to meet this increasing responsibility, in such a manner as to fulfil the requirements of moral law, a being under such a constitution must, at every moment of his existence, possess a moral faculty, which, by perfect previous cultivation, is adapted to the responsibilities of that particular moment. But, suppose this not to have been the case; and that, on the contrary, his moral faculty, by once doing wrong, has become impaired, so that it either does not admonish him correctly of his obligations, or that he has become indisposed to obey its monitions. This must, at the next moment, terminate in action more at variance with rectitude than before. The adjustment between conscience and the passions, must become deranged; and thus, the tendency, at every successive moment, must be, to involve him deeper and deeper in guilt. And, unless some other moral force be exerted in the case, such must be the tendency for ever.

And suppose some such force to be exerted, and, at any period of his existence, the being to begin to obey his conscience in every one of its present monitions. It is manifest, that he would now need some other and more perfect guide, in order to inform him perfectly of his obligations, and of the mode in which they were to be fulfilled. And, supposing this to be done: as he is at this moment responsible for such a capacity for virtue, as would have been attained by a previously perfect rectitude; and as his capacity is inferior to this; and as no reason can be suggested, why his progress in virtue should, under these circumstances, be more rapid than that of a perfect being, but the contrary; it is manifest, that he must ever fall short of what is justly required of him, nay, that he must be continually falling farther and farther behind it.

And hence, the present constitution tends to show us the remediless nature of moral evil, under the government of God, unless some other principle, than that of law, be admitted into the case. These conditions of being having been violated, unless man be placed under some other conditions, natural religion would lead us to believe, that he must suffer the penalty, whatever it be, of wrong. Penitence could in no manner alter his situation; for it is merely a temper justly demanded, in consequence of his sin. But this could not replace him in his original relation to the law which had been violated. Such seems to be the teachings of the Holy Scriptures; and they seem to me to declare, moreover, that this change in the conditions of our being, has been accomplished by the mediation of a Redeemer, by which change of conditions we may, through the obedience of another, be justified (that is, treated as though just), although we are, by confession, guilty.

And hence, although it were shown that a man was, at any particular period of his being, incapable of that. degree of virtue which the law of God required, it would neither follow that he was not under obligation to exercise it, nor that he was not responsible for the whole amount of that exercise of it; since, if he have dwarfed his own powers, he is responsible for the result. And, conversely, if God require this whole amount of virtue, it will not prove that man is now capable of exercising it; but only, that he is either thus capable, or, that he would have been so, if he had used correctly the powers which God gave him.

A few suggestions respecting the moral relations of habit, will close this discussion.

Some of the most important facts respecting habit, are the following:

It is found to be the fact, that the repetition of any physical act, at stated periods, and especially after brief intervals, renders the performance of the act easier; it is accomplished in less time, with less effort, with less expense of nervous power, and of mental energy. This is exemplified, every day, in the acquisition of the mechanical arts, and in learning the rudiments of music. And whoever will remark, may easily be convinced, that a great part of our education, physical and intellectual, in so far as it is valuable, consists in the formation of habits.

The same remarks apply, to a very considerable extent, to moral habits.

The repetition of a virtuous act produces a tendency to continued repetition; the force of opposing motives is lessened; the power of the will over passion is more decided; and the act is accomplished with less moral effort. Perhaps we should express the fact truly, by saying, that, by the repetition of virtuous acts, moral power is gained; While for the performance of the same acts, less moral power is required.

On the contrary, by the repetition of vicious acts, a tendency is created towards such repetition; the power of the passions is increased; the power of opposing forces is diminished; and the resistance to passion requires a greater moral effort; or, as in the contrary of the preceding case, a greater moral effort is required to resist our passions, while the moral power to resist them is diminished.

Now; the obvious nature of such a tendency is, to arrive at a fixed and unalterable moral state. Be the fact accounted for as it may, I think that habit has an effect upon the will, such as to establish a tendency towards the impossibility to resist it. Thus, the practice of virtue seems to tend towards rendering a man incapable of vice, and the practice of vice towards rendering a man incapable of virtue. It is common to speak of a man as incapable of meanness; and I think we see men as often, in the same sense, incapable of virtue. And, if I mistake not, we always speak of the one incapacity as an object of praise, and of the other as an object of blame.

It we inquire, what are the moral effects of such a condition of our being, I think we shall find them to be as follows:

1. Habit cannot alter the nature of an action, as right or wrong. It can alter neither our relations to our fellow creatures, nor to God, nor the obligations consequent upon those relations. Hence, the character of the action must remain unaffected.

2. Nor can it alter the guilt or innocence of the action. As he who acts virtuously, is entitled to the benefit of virtuous action, among which the tendency to virtuous action is included; so, he who acts viciously, is responsible for all the consequences of vicious action, the correspondent tendency to vicious action also included. The conditions being equal, and he being left to his own free choice, the consequences of either course rest justly upon himself.

The final causes of such a constitution are also apparent.

1. It is manifestly and precisely adapted to our present state, when considered as probationary, and capable of moral changes, and terminating in one where moral change is impossible. The constitution under which we are placed presents us with the apparent paradox of a state of incessant moral change, in which every individual change has a tendency to produce a state that is unchangeable.

2. The fact of such a constitution is, manifestly, in tended to present the strongest possible incentives to virtue and monitions against vice. It teaches us that consequences are attached to every act of both, not only present but future, and, so far as we can see, interminable. As every one can easily estimate the pleasures of vice and the pains of virtue, both in extent and duration; but, as no one, taking into consideration the results of the tendency which each will produce, can estimate the interminable consequences which must arise from either, there is, therefore, hence derived the strongest possible reason, why we should always do right, and never do wrong.

3. And again. It is evident, that our capacity for increase in virtue, depends greatly upon the present constitution, in respect to habit. I have remarked, that the effect of the repetition of virtuous action, was to give us greater moral power, while the given action itself required less moral effort. There, hence, arises, if I may so say, a surplus of moral power, which may be applied to the accomplishment of greater moral achievement. He who has overcome one evil temper, has acquired moral power to overcome another; and that which was first subdued, is kept in subjection without a struggle. He who has formed one habit of virtue practices it, without effort, as a matter of course, or of original impulse; and the power thus acquired, may be applied to the attainment of other and more difficult habits, and the accomplishment of higher and more arduous moral enterprises. He who desires to see the influence of habit illustrated, with great beauty and accuracy, will be gratified by the perusal of “The Hermit of Teneriffe,” one of the most delightful allegories to be found in the English language.

The relation between the moral and the intellectual powers, in the moral conditions of our being may e thus briefly stated:

1. We are created under certain relations to our Creator, and to our fellow-creatures.

2. We are created under certain obligations to our Creator, and our fellow-creatures, in consequence of these relations, obligations to exercise certain affections, and to maintain courses of action correspondent to those affections.

3. By means of our intellectual powers, we perceive these relations.

4. By means of our moral powers, we become conscious of these obligations.

5. The consciousness of these obligations alone, would not always teach us how they were to be discharged; as, for example, the consciousness of our obligations to God, would not teach us how God should be worshiped, and so in various other cases. It is by the use of the powers of our intellect, that we learn how these moral affections are to be carried into action. The use of the intellect is, therefore, twofold. First, to discover to us our relations. Secondly, to discover in what manner our obligations are to be discharged.