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

Francis Wayland


General Principles Illustrated, And The Duties of Reciprocity Classified

IT has been already observed, that our duties, to both God and man, are all enforced by the obligation of love to God. By this we mean, that, in consequence of our moral constitution, we are under obligation to love our fellow-men, because they are our fellow-men; and we are also under obligation to love them, because we have been commanded to love them by our Father who is in heaven. The nature of this obligation may be illustrated by a familiar example. Every child in a family is under obligation to love its parent. And every child is bound to love its brother, both because he is its brother, and, also, because this love is a duty enforced by the relation in which they both stand to their common parent.

The relation in which men stand to each other, is essentially the relation of equality; not equality of conditions but equality of right.

Every human being is a distinct and separately accountable individual. To each one, God has given just such means of happiness, and placed him under just such circumstances for improving those means of happiness, as it has pleased him. To one he has given wealth; to another, intellect; to another, physical strength; to another, health; and to all in different degrees. In all these respects, the human race presents a scene of the greatest possible diversity. So far as natural advantages are concerned, we can scarcely find two individuals, who are not created under circumstances widely dissimilar.

But, viewed in another light, all men are placed under circumstances of perfect equality. Each separate individual is created with precisely the same right to use the advantages with which God has endowed him, as every other individual. This proposition seems to me in its nature so self-evident, as almost to preclude the possibility of argument. The only reason that I can conceive, on which any one could found a plea for inequality of right, must be inequality of condition. But this can manifestly create no diversity of right. I may have been endowed with better eye-sight than my neighbor; but this evidently gives me no right to put out his eyes, or to interfere with his right to derive from them whatever of happiness the Creator has placed within his power. I may have greater muscular strength than my neighbor; but this gives me no right to break his arms, or to diminish, in any manner, his ability to use them for the production of his own happiness. Besides, this supposition involves direct and manifest contradiction. For the principle asserted is, that superiority of condition confers superiority of right. But if this be tree, then every kind of superiority of condition must confer correspondent superiority of right. Superiority in muscular strength must confer it, as much as superiority of intellect, or of wealth; and must confer it in the ratio of that superiority. In that case, if A, on the ground of intellectual superiority, have a right to improve his own means of happiness, by diminishing those which the Creator has given to B, B would have the same right over A, on the ground of superiority of muscular strength; while C would have a correspondent rig ht over them both, on the ground of superiority of wealth; and so on indefinitely; and these rights would change every day, according to the relative situation of the respective parties. That is to say, as right is, in its nature, exclusive, all the men in the universe have an exclusive right to the same thing; while the right of every one absolutely annihilates that of every other. What is the meaning of such an assertion, I leave it for others to determine.

But let us look at man in another point of light.

1. We find all men possessed of the same appetites and passions, that is, of the same desire for external objects, and the same capacity for receiving happiness from the gratification of these desires. We do not say that all men possess them all in an equal degree; but only that all men actually possess them all, and that their happiness depends upon the gratification of them.

2. These appetites and passions are created, so far as they themselves are exclusively concerned, without limit. Gratification generally renders them both more intense and more numerous. Such is the case with the love of wealth, the love of power, the love of sensual pleasure, or with any of the others.

3. These desires may be gratified in such a manner, as not to interfere with the right which every other man has over his own means of happiness. Thus, I may gratify my love of wealth, by industry and frugality, while I conduct myself towards every other man with entire honesty. I may gratify my love of science, without diminishing, in any respect, the means of knowledge possessed by another. And, on the other hand, I am created with the physical power to gratify my desires, in such a manner as to interfere with the right which another has over the means of happiness which God has given him. Thus, I have a physical power to gratify my love of property, by stealing the property of another, as well as to gratify it by earning property for myself. I have, by the gift of speech, the physical power to ruin the reputation of another, for the sake of ratifying my own love of approbation. I have the physical power to murder a man, for the sake of using his body to gratify my love of anatomical knowledge. And so of a thousand cases.

4. And, hence, we see that the relation in which human beings stand to each other, is the following: Every individual is created with a desire to use the means of happiness which God has given him, in such a manner as he thinks will best promote that happiness; and of this manner he is the sole judge. Every individual is endowed with the same desires, which he may gratify in such a manner as will not interfere with his neighbor’s means of happiness. But each individual has, also, the physical power to so gratifying his desires, as will interfere with the means of happiness which God has granted to his neighbor.

5. From this relation, it is manifest that every man is Aider obligation to pursue hi s own happiness, in such manner only as will leave his neighbor in the undisturbed exercise of that common right which the Creator has equally conferred upon both, that is, to restrain his physical power of gratifying his desires within such limits that he shall interfere with the rights of no other being; because in no other manner can the evident design of the Creator, the common happiness of all, be promoted.

That this is the law of our being, may be shown from several considerations:

1. By violating it, the happiness of the aggressor is not increased, while that of the sufferer is diminished; while, by obeying it, the greatest amount of happiness of which our condition is susceptible, is secured; because, by obeying it, every one derives the greatest possible advantage from the gifts bestowed upon him by the Creator.

2. Suppose any other rule of obligation; that is, that a man is not under obligation to observe, with this exactitude, the rights of his neighbor Where shall the limit be fixed? If violation be allowed in a small degree, why not in a great degree? And if he may interfere with one right, why not with all? And, as all men come under the same law, this principle would lead to the same absurdity as that of which we have before spoken; that is, it would abolish the very idea of right; and, as every one has an equal liberty of violation, would surrender the whole race to the dominion of restrained desire.

3. If it be said that one class of men is not under the obligation to observe this rule in its conduct towards another class of men, then it will be necessary to show that the second class are not men, that is, human beings; for these principles apply to men, as men; and the simple fact. that a being is a man, places him within the reach of these obligations, and of their protection. Nay, more, suppose the inferior class of beings were not truly men; if they were intelligent moral agents, I suppose that we should be under the same obligation to conduct ourselves towards them upon the principle of reciprocity. I see no reason why an angel would have a right, by virtue of his superior nature, to interfere with the means of happiness which God has conferred upon man. By parity of reasoning, therefore, superiority of rank would give to man no such power over an inferior species of moral and intelligent beings.

And, lastly, if it be true that the Creator has given to every separate individual, control over those means of happiness which He has bestowed upon him, then the simple question is, Which is of the highest authority, this grant of the Creator, or the desires and passions of the creature? For these are really the notions which are brought into collision. That is to say, ought the grant of God, and the will of God, to limit my desires; or ought my desires to vitiate the grant, and set at defiance the will of God? On this question, a moral and intelligent creature can entertain but one opinion.

Secondly, let us examine the teaching of the Holy Scriptures on this subject.

The precept in the Bible is in these words: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

Two questions are here to be considered. First, To whom does this command apply; or, in other words, Who is my neighbor? and, secondly, What is implied in the precept?

1. The first of these questions is answered by our Savior himself, in the parable of the good Samaritan. Luke 10:25-37. He there teaches us, that we are to consider as our neighbor, not our kinsman, or our fellow-citizen, or those to whom we are bound by the reception of previous kindness, but the stranger, the alien, the hereditary national enemy; that is, man, as man; any human being to whom we may in any manner do good. Every man is our neighbor, and, therefore, we are under obligation to love every man as ourselves.

2. What is the import of the command to love such a one as ourselves?

The very lowest meaning that we can assign to this precept, is as follows. I have already stated that God has bestowed upon every man such means of happiness, as, in his own sovereign pleasure, he saw fit; and that he has given to every man an equal right to use those means of happiness as each one supposes will best promote his own well-being. Besides this, every one has, an instinctive desire thus to use them. He cannot be happy unless this desire be gratified, and he is painfully conscious of injury, if this right be interfered with. In this manner, he loves himself. Now, in the same manner he is commanded to love his neighbor. That is, he is, by this precept, obliged to have the same desire that his neighbor should enjoy, unmolested, the control over whatever God has bestowed upon him, as he has to enjoy, unmolested, the same control himself; and to feel the same consciousness of injury when another man’s rights are invaded, as when his own rights are invaded. With these sentiments, he would be just as unwilling to violate the rights of another, as he would be to suffer a violation of his own. That this view of the subject exhausts the command, we by no means assert; but we think it evident that the language is capable of a no less comprehensive meaning.

The same precept is expressed in other places, under another form of language: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12.

The words here, as in the former case, are used to denote a principle of universal obligation: “All things what soever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even go unto them.”

The precept itself teaches us to estimate the rights of others by the consciousness of individual right in our own bosoms. Would we wish to know how delicate a regard we are bound to entertain towards the control which God has given to others over the means of happiness which He has granted to them, let us decide the question by asking how tender and delicate is the regard which we would wish them to entertain towards us under similar circumstances. The decision of the one question, will always be the decision of the other. And this precept goes a step farther. It renders it obligatory on every man to commence such a course of conduct, irrespectively of whatever may be the conduct of others to himself. It forbids us to demand more than the law of reciprocity allows; it commands us always to render it; and, still more, if we complain to another of his violation of the law, it renders it imperative on us, while we urge upon him a change of conduct, to commence by setting him the example. And it really, if carried out to the utmost, would preclude our claim upon him, until we had ourselves first manifested towards him the very disposition which we demand towards ourselves. The moral beauty of this precept will be at once seen by any one who will take the trouble, honestly, to generalize it. He will immediately perceive that it would always avert injury at the very outset; and, by rendering both parties more virtuous, would tend directly to banish injury, and violence, and wrong, from the earth.

Thirdly. This law of universal reciprocity applies with the same force to communities as to individuals.

Communities are composed of individuals, and can have, in respect to each other, no other rights than those of the individuals who constitute them. If it be wrong for one man to injure another man, it must be equally wrong for two men to injure two other men; and so of any other number. And, moreover, the grant of the Creator is in both cases under the same circumstances. God has bestowed upon nations physical and intellectual advantages, in every possible degree of diversity. But He has granted to them all an equal right to use those advantages in such manner as each one may suppose will best conduce to the promotion of his own happiness.

Hence it will follow, 1. That the precept applies as universally to nations as to individuals. Whenever societies of men treat with each other; whether powerful with weak, or polite with rude civilized with savage, or intelligent with ignorant; whether friends with friends, or enemies with enemies; all are bound. by the law of reciprocity, to love each other as themselves, and to do unto others, in all things, whatsoever they would desire others to do unto them.

2. And hence, also, the precept itself is as obligatory upon nations as upon individuals. Every nation is bound to exhibit as sensitive a regard for the preservation inviolate of the rights of another nation, as it exhibits for the preservation inviolate of its own rights. And still more, every nation is under the same obligation as every individual, to measure the respect and moderation which it displays to others, by the respect and moderation which it demands for itself; and is also, if it complain of violation of right, to set the first example of entire and perfect reciprocity and fidelity. Were this course pursued by individuals and nations, the causes of collision would manifestly cease and the appeal to arms would soon be remembered only as one of the strange infatuations of by-gone, barbarous and blood thirsty ages. Chicanery, and intrigue, and overreaching, are as wicked and as disgraceful in the intercourse of nations and societies, as in that of individuals; and the tool of a nation or of a party, is as truly contemptible as the tool of an individual. The only distinction which I perceive, is, that, in the one case, the instrument of dishonesty is ashamed of his act, and dare not wear the badge of his infamy; while, in the other case, even the ambiguous virtue of shame has been lost, and the man glories in the brand which marks him for a villain.


The duties of reciprocity may be divided into three classes:


This includes justice and veracity.

I. Justice, as it regards,

1. Liberty.
2. Property.
3. Character.
4. Reputation.

II. Veracity.

1. Of the past and present.
2. Of the future.


1. General duty of chastity.
2. The Law of Marriage.
3. The Law of Parents.
4. The Law of Children.


1. The nature of civil society.
2. The mode in which the authority of civil society is maintained.
3. Of forms of government.
4. Duties of magistrates.
5. Duties of citizens.