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

Francis Wayland


Of Civil Society

In order to consider this subject correctly, it will be necessary to consider society as distinct from government. It may exist without a government. At some time it must have so existed. And in all cases, government is merely the instrument by which it accomplishes its purposes. Government is the agent. Society is the principal.

The first consideration which meets us, in the discussion of this subject, is, that CIVIL SOCIETY IS AN INSTITUTION OF GOD; or, in other words, it is the will of God that man should live in a state of society. This may be shown both from the original impulses common to all men, and from the necessities of man, arising out of the conditions of his present existence.

I. From the original impulses of man.

1. One of the strongest and most universal impulses of our nature, is a general love for society. It commences, as every one must have observed, with early infancy, and continues, unabated, to the close of life. The poets can conceive of no situation more afflictive, or more intolerable, than that of a human being in a state of perfect loneliness. Hence, solitary confinement is considered, by all mankind, as one of the severest forms of punishment. And, hence, a disposition to separate one’s self from society is one of the surest indications of mental derangement. Now, the natural result of this intense and universal impulse is a disposition to control such other desires as shall be inconsistent with it. Wherever these dispositions exist, a number of human beings will as readily and naturally form a society as they will do any other thing on which their happiness depends. A constitution of this sort manifestly shows what is the will of our Creator concerning us.

2. The various forms of human attachment illustrate the same truth.

Thus, the attachment between the sexes at once forms a society, which is the origin of every other. Of this union, the fundamental principle is a limited surrender of the happiness of each to that of the other, and the consequent attainment of an increased return of happiness. From this arises the love of parents to children, and that of children to parents, and all the various modifications of affection resulting from collateral and more distant relationships.

Besides these, there must continually arise the feeling of friendship between individuals of similar habits and of correspondent pursuits; the love of benevolence towards those who need our succor, or who awaken our sympathy; and the love of approbation, which will stimulate us to deny ourselves for the sake of acquiring the good opinion of those by whom we are surrounded. Now, the tendency of all these instincts is manifestly twofold: first, as in the former instance, as these propensities can be gratified only by society, we shall be disposed to surrender whatever will be inconsistent with the enjoyment of society; and, secondly, since it is, as we have seen before, in the very nature of affection, to surrender our own personal gratification for the happiness of those whom we love, affection renders such a surrender one of the very sources of our individual happiness. Thus, patriotism, which is only one form of the love of society, not only supposes a man to be willing to surrender something personal for the sake of something general, which he likes better, but also to derive happiness from that very surrender, and to be actually happier when acting from these principles than from any other. It is almost needless to add, that the Creator’s intention, in forming beings with such impulsions, is too evident to be mistaken.

II. The same truth is taught from the necessities imposed upon us by the conditions of our being.

1. Suppose the human race, entirely destitute of these social Principles, to have been scattered abroad over the face of the earth as mere isolated individuals. It is evident that, under such circumstances, the race must quickly have perished. Man, thus isolated, could never contend, either with the cold of the northern, or with the wild beasts of the temperate and warmer, regions. He has neither muscular power, nor agility, nor instinct, to protect him from the one, nor any natural form of clothing to shield him from the other.

2. But suppose that, by any means, the race of man could be continued. Without society, the progressive melioration of his condition would be impossible.

Without society, there could be no division of labor. Every one must do every thing for himself, and at the greatest possible disadvantage. Without society, there could be neither any knowledge of the agents of nature, nor any application of them to the production of value. A man’s instruments would be almost exclusively limited to his teeth and nails. Without society, there could be no acknowledged right of property. Hence, from these causes, there could be no accumulated capital; and each successive generation of men must, like the brutes, remain precisely in the condition of their predecessors. It is equally evident, that, under these circumstances, there could exist no possibility of either intellectual or moral improvement. In fact, take the most civilized, intellectual, and moral condition in which man has ever existed, and compare it with the condition of man naked, wandering, destitute, exposed to the peltings of every tempest, and liable to become the prey of every ferocious beast, and the difference between these two conditions is wholly the result of society. If it be granted that God is benevolent, and wills the happiness of man, nay, if it be even granted that God wills the existence of man, it must be conceded that He also wills that condition on which, not merely his happiness, but even his very existence, depends.

Now, if this be the fact, that is, if civil society be an institution of God, several important conclusions will be seen to follow from it:

1. A very important distinction may be observed between civil society and a simple or voluntary society, such as is described in the last section. In a simple society, the contract is voluntary, and is, like any other society, dissolved at the pleasure of the parties; or it ceases to be binding upon either party, if its conditions be violated by the other party. But, civil society being an institution of God, specific duties are imposed upon both parties, which remain unchanged even after the other party may, in various respects, have violated his part of the contract. In civil society, we are under obligation to God as well as to man, and the former obligation remains even after the other has been annulled. In this respect, it follows the analogy of the other relations established by God, as that of husband and wife, parent and child, in which the one party is bound to act in obedience to the will of God, and according to the obligations of the relation, whether the other party does so or not.

2. Civil society being an ordinance of God, it cannot be justly established, upon any principles whatsoever, simply according to the will of the parties, but it must be established upon the principles which God has established. If it be established upon any other principles, the evidence of his displeasure will be seen in the mutual evil which both parties suffer, in consequence of violating a law of their being. Such is the case with marriage. This is a form of society established by God. Men have no right to enter into it as they please, but only according to the laws which God has established; and, if they act otherwise, mutual misery will be the result.

3. If society be an ordinance of God, it follows that every man who conforms to the social laws of God has a right to it. For if, in the formation of civil society, men are under obligation to act in obedience to the will of God, they have no light to construct it upon such principles as will exclude any man who is willing to obey the social laws of his Maker. No man can, therefore, justly be excluded from society, unless he have committed some overt act by which he has forfeited this right. His original right is to be taken for granted; the proof of forfeiture rests with those who would exclude him. Hence, it is not enough, to say, if a man does not like this society, he may go to another. So long as he violates none of his Maker’s social laws, he has a right to this society, and he cannot be excluded from it without injustice. Any course of legislation therefore, which obliges men to leave a society, unless their forfeiture of social right be proved, is oppressive and unjust.

4. As society is an ordinance of God, it is evidently the will of God that its existence be preserved. Hence, society has a right to take all the means which may be necessary to prevent those crimes, which, if permitted, must destroy society itself. Hence is derived its power to punish criminals, to enforce contracts, and to establish such forms of government as may best conduce to the well-being of the social institution.

I suppose it to have been from a misconception of these principles, that our forefathers erred. They conceived that, in forming a civil society here in the wilderness, they had a right to frame its provisions in such manner as they chose. Hence, they made the form of religious belief a subject of civil legislation, and assumed the right of banishing from their society those who differed from them. in the mode of worshiping God. Their first assumption I conceive to be an error. If society be an ordinance of God, whenever and wherever men form it, they must form it in obedience to his laws. But He has never intended that religious belief, or religious practice, if they interfere not with the rights of others, should be subject to human legislation.

Secondly. OF THE NATURE AND LIMITATIONS OF THE CONTRACT entered into between the individual and civil society.

It has been already remarked, that every society is essentially a mutual compact, entered into between every individual and all the rest of those who form the society. As all these individuals enter the society upon the same terms, that is, put themselves under the power of society in the same respects, the power of the society over the individual is derived from the concession of every individual, and is no other, and in no wise different from what these individuals have made it. And, on the other hand, as every member of the society is a party to the contract which the society has made with the individual, every member of the society is bound faithfully to execute the contract thus entered into.

But, as it was also remarked, this society differs from a simple or voluntary society, inasmuch as it is an ordinance of God, and it is subject to the laws which he has imposed upon it. That every man is bound to become a member of civil society, need not be asserted; all that I affirm is, that, if men form a civil society, they are bound to form it according to the laws which God has appointed. They cannot form it according to any other principles, without violating the rights of their fellow-men, and disobeying the laws of God.

The question, then, which meets us as of the first importance, is this: What are the laws under which God has subjected civil society? On this question I now proceed to offer a few suggestions, considering, first, what is essential to the existence of society; and, secondly, what is merely accidental.

1. Of what is essential to the existence of civil society.

1. As God wills the existence of civil society, it is manifest that he must forbid whatever would be inconsistent with its existence. And, on the other hand, he who chooses to enter society, virtually contracts to abstain from whatever is, from the constitution of things, inconsistent with its existence. This, I think, is as evident as that a man cannot honestly enter into a contract to do any two things in their nature essentially at variance.

2. Suppose, now, a number of men to meet together to form a society, all being perfectly acquainted with the law of reciprocity, and all perfectly inclined to obey it. I think it is manifest that such persons would have to surrender nothing whatever, in order to form a civil society. Every one would do just as he pleased, and yet every one would enjoy fully all the benefit of the social nature of man; that is, every one would enjoy all the blessings arising both from his individual and from his social constitution. This, I suppose, would be the most perfect state of human society of which we are able to conceive.

As, therefore, society, in its most perfect state, may exist without the individual’s surrendering up the right to do any thing which is consistent with the law of reciprocity, the existence of society presents no reason why he should surrender any right which he may enjoy consistently with this law. Whatever other reasons there may be, as those of benevolence, mercy, or religion, they belong not to this question. As every man has, originally, the right to do as he pleases, provided he interferes not with the rights of his neighbors, and as the existence of civil society presents no reason why this right should be restricted, it remains, notwithstanding the existence of such society, just as it was before; that is, the right vests, without change, in the individual himself.

3. Suppose, now, any individual to violate the law of reciprocity; as, for instance, that A steals the property of B, or violates a contract into which they have mutually entered. If this be allowed, that is, if every man were to steal at will the property of his neighbor, it is manifest that the right of property would be at an end, and every man would be obliged to retire as far as possible from every other man; that is, society would be dissolved.

4. Again, suppose that B takes the work of redress into his own hands, being, at once, his own legislator, judge and executioner. From the native principles of the human heart, it is evident that, from being the aggrieved party, he would, in turn, become the aggressor. This would lead to revenge on the part of A, a revenge to be repeated by the other party, until it ended either in the destruction of one or of both. Hence, every difference would lead to interminable war and unbridled ferocity; and society would cease, because every man would prefer quiet solitude to ceaseless hostility.

To allow one’s self, therefore, in any violation of the law of reciprocity, or to assume the right of redressing one’s own wrongs, is to pursue a course inconsistent with the existence of society; for, were such a course to be pursued universally, society could not exist.

Again, on the other hand, since, in a company of morally imperfect beings, injury is liable to occur, and since, if injury were not prevented, the virtuous would become the prey of the vicious, and society would, as before, be destroyed by universal violence, it is manifestly necessary that injury be prevented, that is, that the virtuous be protected, and that wrongs be redressed. But, as we have shown that the rights of individual self-protection and redress are inconsistent with the existence of society, and as the individual must not redress them, the duty devolves upon the other party, that is, upon society. Society is, therefore, bound to do for the individual what he has relinquished the right to do for himself; that is, to protect him from violation of the law of reciprocity, or to redress his wrong, if this right be violated.

Hence, we see the nature of the compact entered into between the individual and society. It essentially involves the following particulars:

1. Every individual, by entering society, promises that he will abstain from every violation of the law of reciprocity, which, if universally permitted, would destroy society. For, if he be allowed to violate it, the allowance to violate it must be extended to all, since all are equals; and thus society would be destroyed. But as, by the destruction of society, he would gain nothing but solitude, which he could enjoy without depriving others of what is to them a source of happiness, there can be no reason assigned why he should diminish their happiness, to procure what he could equally well enjoy by leaving them alone. If he join the society, he must conform to whatever is necessary to its existence; if he be unwilling to do so, he must remain alone.

2. Every individual promises to surrender to society the right of self-protection.

3. And, lastly, every individual promises to surrender to society the right to redress his own wrongs.

And, on the other hand, society promises,

1. To protect the individual in the enjoyment of all his rights; that is, to enforce upon every individual, within certain limits, obedience to the law of reciprocity.

2. To redress wrongs whenever they may occur, either by obliging the offender to do justly, or else by inflicting such punishment as may be most likely to prevent a repetition of the injury, either by the offender or by others.

It is important here to remark, that this surrender on the one part, and this obligation on the other part, are mutual and universal: that is to say, the individual, on his part, surrenders wholly and entirely the right either to defend or to redress himself; and, on the other hand, society guarantees to defend him, and to do him justice to the utmost; that is, no matter in how small a right, and no matter at how great an expense.

Hence, we see the anti-social tendency of all those secret societies, of which the object, either avowed or in fact, is to protect the individual members in opposition to the laws, that is, in opposition to society. In this case, while the individual receives from civil society the same benefits as other men, and expects from it the fulfilment of its part of the contract, he does not make, on his part, the correspondent surrender. He expects to be protected and redressed, but he reserves also the right of protecting and redeeming himself, and it may be in opposition to the just operation of those laws which he enforces upon others.

And hence, also, we see the obligation of every one to exert himself to the uttermost, in order to enforce the execution of the laws, no matter in how small a matter, or in the case of how obscure an individual. The execution of the laws is what we all promise, and we are all bound to fulfil it. And if laws are not executed, that is, if individuals be not protected, and wrongs be not redressed by society, the individuals will redress them themselves, and thus society will be dissolved. The frequent occurrence of mobs, that is, of extra-legal modes of redress for supposed grievances, are among the most decisive indications of a state of society verging towards dissolution.

But, while this contract is thus universal and obligatory, it is to be remarked, that it is so only in respect to those things in which the parties have respectively bound themselves. The individual, by entering into society, promises to abstain from whatever is inconsistent with the existence of society; but, by entering into society, he promises nothing more. Society promises to restrain and to redress whatever would be destructive to society, but it promises no more. In all other respects, the parties are exactly in the situation in which they were before the establishment of society. Thus freedom, therefore, both of person, of intellect, and of conscience, remain, by the fact of the existence of society, untouched. Thus also freedom of property remains as before, except simply in so far as a portion of every man’s property is pledged to meet the necessary expenses of government. So long as he obey the law of reciprocity, society has no further demands upon him, unless his assistance be demanded in enforcing this obedience upon others.

By this compact, every individual is very greatly the gainer.

1. He promises to obey the law of reciprocity, which is the law of his nature; and by the obedience to which alone he can be happy.

2. He surrenders the right of self-protection, which without society he can exert in but a very imperfect manner, and with nothing but the force of his individual arm; and he receives in return the right to wield in his defense the whole power of society.

3. He surrenders the right of redressing his own grievances, and receives in return the right to have his grievances redressed, at whatever expense, by the whole power of the society.

And, hence, as God wills the happiness of man, we see another reason why society is in obedience to his will; and why the laws necessary to the existence of society may be considered, as they are in fact considered in the Scriptures, as enacted by His authority.

And, again, we see that, from the very nature of society, the individual is perfectly within its physical power. This power of the whole, which they are bound to use only for his protection and defense, they may use for his injury and oppression. And as the whole power of the society is in the hands of the majority, the whole happiness of the individual or of the minority is always in the power of the majority. Hence we see there is no safeguard against oppression, except that which exists in the conditions of the compact on which the society is formed, and the feeling of moral obligation to observe that compact inviolably. That is to say, the real question of civil liberty is not concerning forms of government, but concerning the respective limits and obligations of the individual and of society. When these are correctly adjusted and inviolably observed, there can be no oppression under any form of government. When these are not understood or not observed, there will be tyranny, under any form whatsoever. And to a man of sense it is a matter of very small consequence whether oppression proceed from one or from many; from an hereditary tyrant or from an unprincipled majority. The latter is rather the more galling, and surely at least as difficult of remedy.

And supposing the limits to have been correctly adjusted, it is obvious that they will be of no avail, unless there be in the community sufficient virtue to resist the temptations which continually occur to violate them. In the absence of this, the best constitution is valueless, or worse than valueless. Hence, we see the necessity of individual virtue to the existence of civil freedom. And, hence, whatever tends to depress the standard of individual virtue, saps the very foundations of liberty. And hence religion, in its purest form, and under its most authoritative sanctions, is the surest hope of national as well as of individual happiness

II. Of the accidental modifications of civil society.

I have thus far treated of what is essential to the social compact. Without such a contract as I have suggested, society could not exist. I by no means, however, intend to assert that these limits are exclusive; and that men, in forming society, may not enter into contract in other respects, besides those which I have stated.

Some of the incidental additions to the original forms of contract are the following:

1. After having adjusted the limits of the respective obligations, both of the society and of the individual, men may choose whatever form of government they please for the purpose of carrying forward the objects of society. But, having adopted a particular form of government, they bind themselves to whatever is necessary to the existence of that government. Thus, if men choose a republican form of government, in which the people are acknowledged to be the immediate fountain of all power, they come under obligation to educate their children intellectually and morally; for, without intellectual and moral education, such a form of government cannot long exist. And, as the intellectual education of the young can be made properly a subject of social enactment, this duty may be enforced by society. And the only reason why religious education does not come under the same rule is, that it is not, for reasons which have been before given, a subject for social enactment.

2. I have said that, by the essential principles of the social compact, every man is bound to contribute his part to the expenses of civil society; but that, beyond this, he is not in any respect bound. Still, this does not exclude other forms of contract. Men may, if they choose, agree to hold their whole property subject to the will of the whole, so that they shall be obliged to employ it, not each one for his own good, but each one for the benefit of the whole society. I say, that such a state of things might exist, but it is manifest that it is not essential to society; and that, being not essential, it is by no means to be presumed; and that it cannot exist justly, unless this right have been expressly conceded by the individual to society. If society exert such a power when it has not been expressly conceded to it, it is tyranny. The common fact has been, that society has presumed upon such powers, and has exercised them without reflection, and very greatly to social and individual injury.

3. Men have very generally been disposed to take for granted these accidental powers, and to question or limit the essential powers of society. An instance in point occurs in the question of war. The very idea of war supposes the society to have the right of determining the moral relations in which the individuals of one nation shall stand to the individuals of another nation. Now, this power of society over the individual has never, that I know of, been questioned. And yet, I think it would be very difficult to establish it. The moral precept is, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” And I do not see that society has a right to abrogate this command, or to render void this obligation; or that any moral agent has the right to commit to other individuals the power of changing his moral relations to any creature of God. Forgiveness and charity to men are dispositions which we owe to God. And I do not see that society has any more right to interfere with the manifestation of these dispositions, than with the liberty to inculcate them and to teach them.

To conclude. Whatever concessions on the part of the individual, and whatever powers on the part of society, are necessary to the existence of society, must, by the very fact of the existence of society, be taken for granted. Whatever is not thus necessary is a matter of concession and mutual adjustment; and has no right to be presumed, unless it can be shown to have actually been surrendered. That is, in general, a man is bound by what he has agreed to; but he is not bound by any thing else.

I think no one can reflect upon the above considerations without being led to the conclusion, that the cultivation of the moral nature of man is the grand means for the improvement of society. This alone teaches man, whether as an individual or at a society, to respect the rights of man, as an individual or as a society. This teaches every one to observe inviolate the contract into which, as a member of society, he has entered. Now, since, as we have before shown, the light of conscience and the dictates of natural religion are insufficient to exert the requisite moral power over man, our only hope is in that revelation of his will which God has made in the Holy Scriptures. In these books we are taught that all our duties to man are taken under the immediate protection of Almighty God. On pain of his eternal displeasure, he commands us to love every man as ourselves. Here he holds forth the strongest inducements to obedience, and here he presents the strongest motives, not merely to reciprocity, but also to benevolence. It is lamentable to hear the levity with which some politicians, and, as they would persuade us to believe them to be, statesmen, speak of the religion of Jesus Christ; to observe how complacently they talk of using it as an instrument, convenient enough for directing the weak, but which a man of sense can well enough do without; and which is a mere appendage to the forces that, by his constitution, are destined to act upon man. A more profound acquaintance with the moral and social nature of man would, as it seems to me, work a very important change in their views of this subject.