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

Francis Wayland


Nature of Personal Liberty

Every human being is, by his constitution, a separate, and distinct, and complete system, adapted to all the purposes of self-government, and responsible, separately, to God, for the manner in which his powers are employed. Thus, every individual possesses a body, by which he is connected with the physical universe, and by which that universe is modified for the supply of his wants; an understanding, by which truth is discovered, and by which means are adapted to their appropriate ends; passions and desires, by which he is excited to action, and in the gratification of which his happiness consists; conscience, to point out the limit within which these desires may be rightfully gratified; and a will, which determines him to action. The possession of these is necessary to a human nature, and it also renders every being so constituted, a distinct and independent individual. He may need society, but every one needs it equally with every other one; and, hence, all enter into it upon terms of strict and evident reciprocity. If the individual use these powers according to the laws imposed by his Creator, his Creator holds him guiltless. If he use them in such manner as not to interfere with the use of the same powers which God has bestowed upon his neighbor, he is, as it respects his neighbor, whether that neighbor be an individual or the community, to be held guiltless. So long as he uses them within this limit, he has a right, so far as his fellow-men are concerned, to use them, in the most unlimited sense, suo arbitrio, at his own discretion. His will is his sufficient and ultimate reason. He need assign no other reason for his conduct, than his own free choice within this limit, he is still responsible to God; But, within this limit, he is not responsible to man, nor is man responsible for him.

1. Thus, a man has an entire right to use his own body as he will, provided he do not so use it as to interfere with the rights of his neighbor. He may go where he will, and stay where he please; he may work, or be idle; he may pursue one occupation, or another, or no occupation at all; and it is the concern of no one else, if he leave inviolate the rights of every one else; that is, if he leave every one else in the undisturbed enjoyment of those means of happiness bestowed upon him by the Creator.

It seems almost trifling to argue a point, which is, in its nature, so evident upon inspection. If, however, any additional proof be required, the following considerations will readily suggest themselves. It is asserted that every individual has an equal and ultimate right with every other individual, to the use of his body, his mind, and all the other means of happiness with which God has endowed him. But suppose it otherwise. Suppose that one individual has a right to the body, or mind, or means of happiness, of another. That is, suppose that A has a right to use the body of B according to his, that is, A’s, will. Now, if this be true, it is true universally; hence, A has the control over the body of B, and B has control over the body of C, C of that of D, etc., and Z again over the body of A; that is, every separate will has the right of control over some other body or intellect besides its own, and has no right of control over its own body or intellect. Whether such is the constitution of human nature, or, if it be not, whether it would be an improvement upon the present constitution, may be easily decided. And, if it be said, that, to control one man’s body by another man’s will is impossible, for that every man acts as he will, since he cannot do any thing unless he will do it, it may be answered, that the term will is used here in a different sense from that intended in the preceding paragraph. Every one must see, that a man, who, out of the various ways of employing his body, set before him by his Creator, chooses that which he prefers, is in a very different condition from him who is debarred from all choice, excepting that he may do what his fellow-man appoints, or else must suffer what his fellow-man chooses to inflict.

Now, the true condition of a human being is that in which his will is influenced by no other circumstances than those which arise from the constitution under which his Creator has placed him. And he who for his own pleasure places his fellow-man under any other conditions of existence, is guilty of the most odious tyranny, and seems to me to arrogate to himself the authority of the Most High God. But it may be said that, in this case, the individual may become chargeable to the community. To this I answer, not unless the community assume the charge. If every man be left to himself, but is obliged to respect the rights of others; if he do not labor, a remedy is provided in the laws of the system, he will very soon starve; and, if he prefer starvation to labor, he has no one to blame but himself. While the law of reciprocity frees him from the control of society, it discharges society from any responsibility for the result of his actions upon himself. I know that society undertakes to support the indigent and helpless, and to relieve men in extreme necessity. This, however, is a conventional arrangement, into which men, who choose, have a right to enter; and, having entered into it, they are bound by its provisions. If they become responsible for the support of the individual’s life, they have a right over his power of labor to an extent sufficient to cover that responsibility. And he who has become a member of such a society, has surrendered voluntarily his control over his body, to this amount. But as he has done it voluntarily, such a convention proceeds upon the concession, that the original right vests in the individual.

2. The same remarks apply to the use of the intellect. If the preceding observations are just, it will follow, that every man, within the limit before suggested, has a right to use his intellect as he will. He may investigate whatever subjects he will, and in what manner soever he will, and may come to such conclusions as his investigations may teach, and may publish those conclusions to those who are willing to hear them, provided he interfere with the happiness of no other human being. The denial of this right, would lead to the same absurdities as in the former case.

If it be said that the individual may, by so doing, involve himself in error, and thus diminish his own happiness, the answer is at hand, namely, for this the constitution of things provides its appropriate and adequate punishment. He who imbibes error, suffers, in his own person, the consequences of error, which are misfortune and loss of respect. And, besides, as, for his happiness, society is not in this case responsible: there can be no reason, derived from the consideration of his happiness, why society should interfere with the free use of this instrument of happiness, which the Creator has intrusted solely to the individual himself.

But, it may be asked, has not society a right to oblige men to acquire a certain amount of intellectual cultivation? [ answer, men have a right to form a society upon such conditions as they please; and, of course, so to form it, that it shall be necessary, in order to enjoy its privileges, for the individual to possess a certain amount of knowledge. Having formed such a society, every one is bound by its provisions, so long as he remains a member of it; and the enforcing of its provisions upon the individual, is no more than obliging him to do what he, for a sufficient consideration, voluntarily contracted to do. And society may rightfully enforce this provision in either of two ways: it may either withhold from every man who neglects to acquire this knowledge, the benefits of citizenship; or else it may grant these benefits to every one, and oblige every one to possess the assigned amount of knowledge. In this case, there is no violation of reciprocity; for the same requirements are made of all, and every one receives his full equivalent, in the results of the same law upon others. More than this, the individual could not justly require. He could not justly demand to be admitted to rights which presuppose certain intellectual attainments, and which can only be, with safety to others, enjoyed by those who have made these attainments, unless he be willing to conform to the condition necessary to that enjoyment.

3. I have thus far considered man only in his relations to the present life. So far as I have gone, I have endeavored to show that, provided the individual interfere not with the rights of others, he has a right to use his own body and mind as he thinks will best promote his own happiness; that is, as he will. But, if he have this right, within these limits, to pursue his present happiness, how much more incontrovertible must be his right to use his body and mind in such manner, as he supposes will best promote his eternal happiness! And, besides, if, for the sake of his own happiness, he have a right to the unmolested enjoyment of whatever God has given him, how much more is he entitled to the same unmolested enjoyment, for the sake of obeying God, and fulfilling the highest obligation of which he is susceptible!

We say, then, that every man, provided he does not interfere with the rights of his neighbor, has a right, so far as his neighbor is concerned, to worship God, or not to worship him; and to worship him in any manner that he will and that, for the abuse of this liberty, he is accountable only to God.

If it be said, that, by so doing, a man may ruin his own soul, the answer is obvious; for this ruin, the individual himself, and not society, is responsible. And, moreover, as religion consists in the temper of heart, which force can not affect, and not in external observance, which is all that force can affect, no application of force can change our relations to God, or prevent the ruin in question. All application of force must then be gratuitous mischief.

To sum up what has been said, all men are created with an equal right to employ their faculties, of body or of mind, in such manner as will promote their own happiness, either here or hereafter; or, which is the same thing, every man has a right to use his own powers, of body or of mind, in such manner as he will; provided he do not use them in such manner as to interfere with the rights of his neighbor.

The exceptions to this law are easily defined.

1. The first exception is in the case of infancy.

By the law of nature a parent is under obligation to support his child, and is responsible for his actions. lie has, therefore, a right to control the actions of the child, so long as this responsibility exists. He is under obligation to render that child a suitable member of the community; and this obligation he could not discharge, unless the physical and intellectual liberty of the child were placed within his power.

2. As the parent has supported the child during infancy, he has, probably, by the law of nature, a right to his services during youth, or for so long a period as may be sufficient to insure an adequate remuneration. When, however, this remuneration is received, the right of the parent over the child ceases for ever.

3. This right he may, if he see fit, transfer to another, as in the case of apprenticeship. But he can transfer the right for no longer time than he holds it. He can, therefore, negotiate it away for no period beyond that of the child’s minority.

4. A man may transfer his right over his own labor for a limited time, and for a satisfactory equivalent. But this transfer proceeds upon the principle that the original right vests in himself, and it is, therefore, no violation of that right. He has, however, no right to transfer the services of any other person except his child; nor of his child, except under the limitations above specified.

In strict accordance with these remarks, is the memorable sentence in the commencement of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That the equality here spoken of is not of the means of happiness, but in the right to use them as we will, is too evident to need illustration.