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

Francis Wayland


Of the Manner in Which We Learn Our Duty by the Light of Nature

In treating upon this subject, it is taken for granted,

1. That there is an intelligent and universal First Cause, who made us as we are, and made all things around us capable of affecting us, both as individuals and as societies, as they do. That He had a design in so making us, and in constituting the relations around us as they are constituted; and that a part of that design was to intimate to us his will concerning us.

3. That we are capable of observing these relations, and of knowing how various actions affect us and affect others.

4. And that we are capable of learning the design with which these various relations were constituted; and, specially, that part of the design which was to intimate to us the will of our Creator.

The application of these self-evident principles to the subject of duty is easy. We know that we are so made as to derive happiness from some courses of conduct, and to suffer unhappiness from others. Now, no one can doubt that the intention of our Creator in these cases was that we should pursue the one course, and avoid the other. Or, again, we are so made, that we are rendered unhappy, on the whole, by pursuing a course of conduct in some particular manner, or beyond a certain degree. This is an intimation of our Creator, respecting the manner and the degree in which he designs us to pursue that course of conduct.

Again, as has been said before, society is necessary, no: m rely to the happiness, but to the actual existence, of the race of man. Hence, it is necessary, in estimating the tendency of actions upon our own happiness, to extend our view beyond the direct effect of an action upon ourselves. Thus, if we cannot perceive that any evil would result to ourselves from a particular course of action, yet, if it would tend to injure society, specially if it would tend to destroy society altogether, we may hence arrive at a clear indication of the will of our Creator concerning it. As the destruction of society would be the destruction of the individual, it is as evident that God does not intend us to do what would injure society, as that He does not intend us to do what would injure our own bodies, or diminish our individual happiness. And the principle of limitation suggested above, applies in the same manner here: that is, if a course of conduct, pursued in a certain manner, or to a certain extent, be beneficial to society; and if pursued in another manner, or beyond a certain extent, is injurious to it; the indication is, in this respect, clear, as to the will of our Maker respecting us.

To apply this to particular cases. Suppose a man were in doubt, whether or not drunkenness were agreeable to the will of his Maker. Let us suppose that intemperate drinking produces present pleasure, but that it also produces subsequent pain; and that, by continuance in the habit, the pleasure becomes less, and the pain greater; and that the pain affects various powers of the mind, and different organs of the body. Let a man look around him, and survey the crime, the vice, the disease, and the poverty, which God has set over against the momentary gratification of the palate, and the subsequent excitement which it produces. Now, whoever will look at these results, and will consider that God had a design in creating things to affect us as they do, must be as fully convinced that, by these results, He intended to forbid intemperance, as though He had said so by a voice from heaven. The same principle may be applied to gluttony, libertinism, or any other vice.

Another example may be taken from the case of revenge. Revenge is that disposition which prompts us to inflict pain upon another, for the sake of alleviating the feeling of personal degradation consequent upon an injury. Now, suppose a man, inflamed and excited by this feeling of injury, should inflict, upon the other party, pain, until his excited feeling was gratified: the injured party would then manifestly become the injurer; and, thus, the original injurer would be, by the same rule, entitled to retaliate. Thus, revenge and retaliation would go on increasing until the death of one of the parties. The duty of vengeance would then devolve upon the surviving friends and relatives of the deceased, and the circle would widen until it involved whole tribes or nations. Thus, the indulgence of this one evil passion would, in a few generations, render the thronged city an unpeopled solitude. Nor is this a mere imaginary case. The Indians of North America are known to have considered the indulgence of revenge not merely as innocent, but also as glorious, and in some sense obligatory. The result was, that, at the time of the discovery of this continent, they were universally engaged in wars; and, according to the testimony of their oldest and wisest chiefs, their numbers were rapidly diminishing. And, thence, he who observes the effects of revenge upon society, must be convinced, that he who formed the constitution under which we live, must have intended, by these effects, to have forbidden it, as clearly as though he had made it known by language. He has given us an understanding, by the simplest exercise of which, we arrive at this conclusion.

It is still further to be observed, that, whenever a course of conduct produces individual, it also produces social misery; and whenever a course of conduct violates the social laws of our being, it of necessity produces individual misery. And, hence, we see that both of these indications are combined, to teach us the same lesson; that is, to intimate to us what is, and what is not, the will of God respecting our conduct.

Hence, we see that two views may be taken of an action, when it is contemplated in the light of nature: first, as affecting ourselves; and, secondly, as affecting both ourselves and society, but specially the latter. It is in this latter view that we introduce the doctrine of general consequences. We ask, in order to determine what is our duty, What would be the result, if this or that action were universally practiced among men? Or, how would it affect the happiness of individuals, and of the whole? By the answer to these questions, we ascertain what is the will of God in respect to that action, or that course of action. When once the will of God is ascertained, conscience, as we have shown, teaches us that we are under the highest obligation to obey it. Thus, from the consideration of the greatest amount of happiness, we arrive at the knowledge of our duty, not directly but indirectly. The feeling of moral obligation does not arise from the simple fact that, such a course of conduct will, or will not, produce the greatest amount of happiness; but, from the fact that this tendency shows us what is the will of our Creator; and we are, by the principles of our nature, under the highest possible obligation to obey that will.

It must be evident that a careful observation of the results and tendencies of actions, and of different courses of conduct, will teach us, in very many respects, the laws of our moral nature; that is, what, in these respects, is the will of our Creator. Now, these laws, thus arrived at, and reduced to order and arrangement, form the system of natural religion. So far as it goes, every one must confess such a system to be valuable; and it, moreover, rests upon as sure and certain a basis as any system of laws whatever.

To all this, however, I know but of one objection that can be urged. It is, that pain is not, of necessity, punitive, or prohibitory; and that it may be merely monitory or advisory. Thus, if I put my hand incautiously too near the fire, I am admonished by the pain which I feel to withdraw it. Now, this pain is, manifestly, only monitory, and intended merely to warn me of danger. It is not, of necessity, prohibitory; for, I may hold my hand so near to the fire as to produce great pain, for some necessary purpose, as, for instance, for the sake of curing disease, and yet not violate my obligations to. my Creator, nor in any measure incur his displeasure.

Now, the fact thus stated may be fully admitted, without min the least affecting the argument. It is evident, that many of the pains to which we are at present exposed, are, in their nature, intended to warn us of approaching harm, as in the instance just mentioned; or, they may be intimations of mischief actually commenced, of which we could not be otherwise aware, — as in the case of internal diseases. And, it is manifest, that, such being their nature and design they must be intimately connected with, and either accompany or precede, that injury of which they are intended to forewarn or to inform us; and it is natural to expect that they would cease or tend to cessation, as soon as they have accomplished the object for which they were intended. And such, I think, will in general be found to be the fact with respect to those pains which are in their nature monitory.

But I think it will be evident, to every one who will observe, that many of the pains endured under the present constitution, are not of this kind.

Thus, for example:

l. There are many pains which are inflicted in consequence of actions of which we were forewarned by conscience. It would seem that the design bf these pains could not be monitory, inasmuch as monition is performed by another faculty.

2. There are many pains which, from the nature of our constitution, are not inflicted until after the act has been performed, and the evil accomplished. This is the case with drunkenness, and many other vices. Here, the pain cannot be intended as a premonition; for it is not inflicted in its severity until after the injury has actually been done.

3. Not only does the pain, in many cases, occur afterwards; it frequently does not occur until a long time after the offence. Months, and even years, may elapse, before the punishment overtakes the criminal. This is very frequently the case with youthful crimes, which, ordinarily, exhibit their result not until manhood, or even old age. Now, pain must here be intended to signify something else besides warning.

4. We find that the punishment, in many cases, bears no sort of proportion either to the benefit obtained by the individual, or even to the injury, in the particular instance, inflicted upon society. This is manifest in very many instances of lying, forgery, small theft, and the like, in which, by a single act of wrong, a person ruins a reputation which it had taken a whole life to establish. Now, in such a case as this, it is evident that the purpose of warning could not be intended; for this end could be accomplished, at vastly less expense of happiness, in some other way.

5. We find that the tendency of many instances of punishment, is not to leave the offender in the same state as before, but rather in a worse state. His propensities to do wrong are rendered stronger, and his inducement to do well weaker; and thus he is exposing himself to greater and greater punishments. The tendency, therefore, is not to recovery, but to more fatal moral disease.

6. Although a man, by reformation, may frequently regain the standing which he has lost, yet there are manifest indications, in the present constitution, that, after a given amount of tn il has been granted, a decisive punishment is inflicted which extinguishes for ever all hope, if not all possibility, of recovery. A man may waste part of his youth in idleness, and may by diligence regain the time which he had lost. But he soon arrives at a point, beyond which such opportunity is impossible. Thus also in morals, a man may sometimes do wrong, and return to virtue, and escape present punishment; but every instance of crime renders the probability of escape less; and he at last arrives at a point, beyond which nothing can avert the infliction of the merited and decisive calamity.

7. We find that some actions produce misery which extends to other beings besides those who are actually concerned in committing them.

This takes place sometimes by example, and at other times the pain is inflicted upon those who could not be infected by the example. Illustrations of this are seen in cases of disease propagated by hereditary descent, in misery arising from the misconduct of rulers, in the suffering of men from flagitious crimes of relatives and acquaintances. And in consequence of the constitution under which we exist, these miseries are frequently transmitted down beyond any assignable limit. Thus, the condition of the Jews is by themselves and others frequently believed to be the result of some crime committed by their forefathers, either at or before the time of Christ. The sad effects of the persecution of Protestantism in Spain and Portugal, at the time of the Reformation, can be clearly traced in all the subsequent history of these countries.

Now, all these considerations seem clearly to indicate that there are pains inflicted upon man for other purposes except warning; and that they are of the nature of punishment; that is, of pain inflicted after crime has been voluntarily committed, in spite of sufficient warning, and inflicted by way of desert, as what the offence really merits, and what it behooves a righteous governor to award transgression.

Nor will it avail, to object that these inflictions are intended to be warnings to others. This is granted; but this by no means prevents their being also punishments in the sense in which we have considered them. Such is the case in all punishments inflicted by society. They are intended to be a warning to others; but this hinders not their being also in the strictest sense punishments; that is, inflictions of pain as the just desert of crime, and as clear indications of the will of society respecting the action of which they are the result.

From what has been said, I think we may safely conclude:

1. That God has given to man a moral and an intellectual constitution, by which he may be admonished of his duty.

2. That He allows man to act freely, and to do either fight or wrong, as he chooses.

3. That He, in the present life, has connected rewards with the doing of right, and punishments with the doing of wrong; and that these rewards and punishments affect both the individual and society.

4. And hence that, from an attentive observation of the results of actions upon individuals, and upon society, we may ascertain what is the will of God concerning us.

5. And for all the opportunities of thus ascertaining his will by his dealings with men, that is, by the light of nature God holds all his creatures responsible.