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

Francis Wayland


Of A Simple Society

I. Of the nature of a Simple Society.

1. A society of any sort originates in a peculiar form of contract, entered into between each several individual forming the society, on the one part, and all the other members of the society on the other part. Each party promises to do certain things to or for the other, and puts itself under moral obligation to do so. Hence, we see that conscience, or the power of recognizing moral obligation, is, in the very nature of things, essential to the existence of a society. Without it, a society could not be formed.

2. This contract, like any other, respects those things, and those things only, in which the parties have thus bound themselves to each other. As the individual is under no obligation to belong to the society, but the obligation is purely voluntary, he is bound in no other manner, and for no other purpose, that those in and for which he has bound himself. In all other respects, he is as free as he was before.

3. Inasmuch as the formation of a society involves the idea of a moral obligation, each party is under moral obligation to fulfil its part of the contact. The society is bound to do what it has promised to every individual, and every individual is bound to do what he has promised to the society. If either party cease to do this, the compact, like any other mutual contract, is dissolved.

4. Inasmuch as every individual is, in all respects excepting those in which he has bound himself, as free as he was before, the society has no right to impose upon the individual any other obligation than those under which he has placed himself. For, as he has come under no such obligation to them, they have no more control over him than any other men. And, as their whole power is limited to that which has been conferred upon them by individuals, beyond this limit, they are no society; they have no power; their act is really out of the society, and is, of course, binding upon no member of the society, any more than upon any other man.

5. As every member of the society enters it upon the same terms, that is, as every one comes under the same obligations to the society, and the society comes under the same obligations to him, they are, by consequence, so far as the society is concerned, all equals or fellows. All have equal rights, and all are subject to the same obligations.

6. That which defines the obligations under which the individual and the society have come, in respect to each other, is called the constitution of the society. It is intended to express the object of the association, and the manner in which that object is to be accomplished: that is to say, it declares what the individual promises to do for the society, what the society promises to do for the individual, and the object for which this association between the parties is formed.

7. As the union of individuals in this manner is voluntary, every member naturally has a right to dissolve the connection when he pleases; and the society have also a corresponding right. As, however, this would frequently expose both parties to inconvenience, it is common, in the articles of the constitution, or the form of compact, to specify on what terms this may be done. When this part of the agreement has thus been entered into, it of course becomes as binding as any other part of it.

II. Of the manner in which such a society shall be governed.

The object of any such association is to do something. But it is obvious that they can act only on one of three suppositions: by unanimity, by a minority, or by a majority. To expect unanimity in the opinions of a being so diversified in character as man, is frivolous. To suspend the operation of many upon the decisions of one, is manifestly *unjust, would be subversive of the whole object of the association, and would render the whole society more inefficient than the separate individuals of which it is composed. To suppose a society to be governed by a minority, would be to suppose a less number of equals superior in wisdom and goodness to a greater number, which is absurd. It remains, therefore, that every society must of necessity be governed by a majority.

III. Of the limits within which the power of the majority is restricted.

The majority, as we have just seen, is vested, from necessity, with the whole power of the society. But it derives its power wholly and exclusively from the society, and of course it can have no power beyond, or diverse from, that of the society itself. Now, as the power of the society is limited by the concessions made by each individual respectively, and is bound by its obligations to each individual, the power of the majority is manifestly restricted within precisely the same limits.

Thus, to be more particular, a majority has no right to do any thing which the individuals forming the society have not authorized the society to do:

1. They have no right to change the object of the society. If this be changed, another society is formed, and the individual members are, as at first, at liberty to union with it or not.

2. They have no right to do any thing beyond, or different from, the object of the society. The reasons are the same as in the former instance.

3. Nor have they a right to do any thing in a manner different from that to which the members, upon entering the society, agreed. The manner set forth in the constitution, was that by which the individuals bound themselves, and they are bound by nothing else.

4. Nor have they a right to do any thing which violates the principle of the entire social equality of the members. As all subjected themselves equally to the same rules, any act which supposes a difference of right, is at variance with the fundamental principle of the compact.

And, hence, from the nature of the compact, it is obvious, that, while a majority act within the limits of the authority thus delegated to them, the individual is under a moral obligation to obey their decisions; for he has voluntarily placed himself under such obligation, and he is bound to fulfil it.

And, on the other hand, the society is bound to fulfil to the individual the contract which they have formed with him, and to carry forward the object of the association in the manner and in the spirit of the contract entered into. Nor is this a mere matter of form or of expediency: it is a matter of moral obligation voluntarily entered into; and it s as binding as any other contract formed under any other circumstances.

And, again, if the society or the majority act in violation of these engagements, or if they do any thing not committed to them by the individual, such act is not binding upon any member; and he is under no more obligation to be governed by it, than he would be if it were done by any other persons, or if not done at all.

If these principles be correct, they will, I think, throw some light upon the question of the durability of corporations. A corporation is a society established for certain purposes, which are to be executed in a certain manner. He who joins it, joins it under these conditions; and the whole power of the society consists in power to do these things in this manner. If they do any thing else, they, when doing it, are not this society, but some other. And of course those, whether the minority or the majority, who act according to the original compact, are the society; and the others, whether more or less, are something else. The act of incorporation is governed by the same principles. It renders the persons so associated a body politic, and recognized in law, but it does not interfere with the original principles of such an association. The corporation, therefore, are the persons, whether more or less, who adhere to the original agreement; and any act declaring any thing else to be the society, is unjust and void.

But suppose them all to have altered their sentiments. The society is then, of course, dissolved. They may, if they choose, form another society; but they are not another, of course, nor can they be such until they form another organization.

Again, suppose that they have property given under the original association, and for the promotion of its objects, and the whole society, or a majority of them, have changed its objects. I answer, If a part still remain, and prosecute the original object, they are the society; and the others, by changing the object, have ceased to be the society The right of property vests with those who adhere to the original constitution. If all have changed the object, the society is dissolved; and all ownership, so far as the property is concerned, ceases. It therefore either belongs to the public, or reverts to the heirs at law. A company of men united for another object, though retaining the same name, have no more right to inherit it than any other citizens The right of a legislature to give it to them by special act, is even very questionable. Legislatures are not empowered to bestow property upon men at will; and such grant, being beyond the power conceded to the legislator, seems to me to be null and void.

The principles of this section seem to me to demand the special attention of those who are at present engaged in conducting the business of voluntary associations. It should always be remembered, that he who joins a voluntary association, joins it for a specified object, and for no other. The association itself has one object, and no other. This object, and the manner in which it is to be accomplished ought to be plainly set forth in the constitution. Now, when a majority attempt to do any thing not comprehended within this object thus set forth, or in a manner at variance with that prescribed, they violate the fundamental article of the compact, and the society is virtually dissolved. And against such infraction of right it is the duty of the individual to protest; and if it be persisted in, it is his duty to withdraw. And it seems to me that, otherwise, the whole benefit of voluntary associations will be lost; and if the whole society do it, the society is changed, and it is changed in no manner the less because its original name is retained. If the objects of such associations be not restricted, their increasing complication will render them unmanageable by any form of agency. If an individual, when he unites with others for one object, knows not for how many objects, nor for what modes of accomplishing them, he shall be held responsible, who will ever unite in a benevolent enterprise? And, if masses of men may be thus associated in every part of a country for one professed object, and this object may be modified, changed, or exceeded, according to the will of an accidental majority, voluntary associations will very soon be transformed into the tools of intriguing and ambitious men, and will thus become a curse instead of a blessing.