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

Francis Wayland


Duties of Citizens

FROM what has already been stated, it will be seen that the duties of a citizen are of two kinds: first, as an individual; and, second, as a member of society. A few remarks on each of these will close this part of the subject.

FIRST. As an individual.

Every citizen, as an individual, is bound to observe, in good faith, the contract which he has made with society. This obliges him, 1. To observe the law of reciprocity, in all his intercede with others.

The nature of this law has been already explained. It is only necessary to remark, that society furnishes an additional reason for observing it, a reason founded both in voluntary compact, and also in the necessity of obedience to our own happiness. It may also be added, that he nature of the law of reciprocity binds us, not merely co avoid those acts which are destructive to the existence of society, but also those which would interfere with its happiness. The principle is, in all cases, the same. If we assume the right to interfere with the smallest means of happiness possessed by our neighbor, the admission of that assumption would excuse every form of interference.

2. To surrender the right of redressing his wrongs wholly to society. This has been considered already, in treating of the social compact. Aggression and injury in no case justify retaliation. If a man’s house be attacked, he may, so far as society is concerned, repel the robber, because here society is unable, at the instant, to assist him; but he is at liberty to put forth no other effort than that necessary to protect himself, or to secure the aggressor, for the purpose of delivering him over to the judgment of society If, after having secured him, we put him to death, this is murder.

3. To obey all laws made in accordance with the constituted lowers of society. Hence, we are in no manner released from this obligation, by the conviction that the law is unwise or inexpedient. We have confided the decision of this question to society, and we must abide by that decision. To do otherwise, would be to constitute every man the judge in his own case; that is, to allow every man to obey or disobey as he pleased, while he expected from every other man implicit obedience. Thus, though a man were convinced that laws regulating the rate of interest were inexpedient, this would give him no right to violate these laws. He must obey them until he be able to persuade society to think as he does.

SECONDLY. The citizen is under obligations as a constituent member of society. By these obligations, on the other hand, he is bound to fulfil the contract which he has made with every individual.

Hence, he is bound, 1. To use all the necessary exertion to secure to every individual, from the highest and most powerful to the lowest and most defenseless, the full benefit of perfect protection min the enjoyment of his rights.

2. To use all the necessary exertion to procure for every individual just and adequate redress for wrong.

3. To use all the necessary exertion to carry into effect the laws of civil society, and to detect and punish crime, whether committed against the individual or against society. Wherever he knows these laws to be violated, he is bound to take all proper steps to bring the offenders to justice.

And here it is to be remarked, that he is to consider, not merely his property, but his personal service, pledged to the fulfilment of this obligation. He who stands by, and sees a mob tear down a house, is a partaker in the guilt. And, if society knowingly neglect to protect the individual in the enjoyment of his rights, every member of that society is, in equity, bound, in his proportion, to make good that loss, how great soever it may be.

4. It is the duty of the citizen to bear, cheerfully, his proportionate burden of the public expense. As society cannot be carried on without expense, he, by entering into society, obliges himself to bear his proportion of it. And, besides this, there are but few modes in which we receive back so much for what we expend, as when we pay money for the support of civil government. The gospel, I think, teaches us to go farther, and be ready to do more than we are compelled to do by law. The precept, “If a man compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,” refers to labor in the public service, and exhorts us to do more than can be in equity demanded of us.

5. Besides this, I think a citizen is under moral obligation to contribute his proportion to every effort which affords a reasonable prospect of rendering his fellow-citizens wiser and better. From every such successful effort, he receives material benefit, both in his person and estate. He ought to be willing to assist others in doing that from which he himself derives important advantage.

6. Inasmuch as society enters into a moral obligation to fulfil certain duties, which duties are performed by agents whom the society appoints; for their faithful discharge of those duties, society is morally responsible. As this is the case, it is manifestly the duty of every member of society to choose such agents as, in his opinion, will truly and faithfully discharge those duties to which they are appointed. He who, for the sake of party prejudice or personal feeling, acts otherwise, and selects individuals for office without regard to these solemn obligations, is using his full amount of influence to sap the very foundations of society, and to perpetrate the most revolting injustice.

Thus far, we have gone upon the supposition that society has exerted its power within its constituted limits This, however, unfortunately, is not always the case. The question then arises, What is the duty of an individual, when such a contingency shall arise?

Now, there are but three courses of conduct, in such a case, for the individual to pursue: passive obedience, resistance, and suffering in the cause of right:

1. Passive obedience, in many cases, would be manifestly wrong. We have no right to obey an unrighteous law, since we must obey God at all hazards. And, aside from this, the yielding to injustice forms a precedent for wrong, which may work the most extensive mischief to those who shall come after us. It is manifest, therefore, that passive obedience cannot be the rule of civil conduct.

2. Resistance by force.

Resistance to civil authority, by a single individual, would be absurd. It can succeed only by the combination of all the aggrieved against the aggressors, terminating in an appeal to physical force; that is, by civil war.

The objections to this course are the following:

1. It is, at best, uncertain. It depends mainly on the question, which party is, under the present circumstances, the stronger? Now, the oppressor is as likely to be the stronger as the oppressed, as the history of the world has abundantly shown.

2. It dissolves the social fabric, and thus destroys whatever has thus far been gained in the way of social organization. But it should be remembered that few forms of society have existed for any considerable period, in which there does not exist much that is worthy of preservation.

3. The cause of all oppression is the wickedness of man. But civil war is, in its very nature, a most demoralizing process. It never fails to render men more wicked. Can it then be hoped that a form of government can be created, by men already worse than before, better than that which their previous but less intense wickedness rendered intolerable?

4. Civil war is, of all evils which men inflict upon themselves, the most horrible. It dissolves not only social but domestic ties, overturns all the security of property, throws back, for ages, all social improvement, and accustoms men to view, without disgust and even with pleasure, all that is atrocious and revolting. Napoleon, accustomed as he was to bloodshed, turned away with horror from the contemplation of civil war. This, then, cannot be considered the way designed by our Creator for rectifying social abuses.

3. The third course Is that of suffering in the cause of right. Here we act as we believe to be right, in defiance of oppression, and bear patiently whatever an oppressor may inflict upon us. The advantages of this course are,

1. It preserves entire whatever exists that is valuable in the present organization.

2. It presents the best prospect of ultimate correction of abuse, by appealing to the reason and the conscience of men. This is, surely, a more fit tribunal to which to refer a moral question, than the tribunal of physical force.

3. It causes no more suffering than is actually necessary to accomplish its object; for, whenever men are convince of the wickedness of oppression, the suffering, of itself, ceases.

4. Suffering in the cause of right has a manifest tendency to induce the injurious to review heir conduct, under all the most favorable circumstances for conviction. It disarms pride and malevolence, and enlists sympathy in favor of the sufferer. Hence, its tendency is to make men better.

5. And experience has shown that the cause of civil liberty has always gained more by martyrdom than by war. It has rarely happened that, during civil war, the spirit of true liberty has not declined. Such was the case in the time of Charles I, in England. How far the love of liberty had declined in consequence of civil war, is evident from the fact, that Cromwell succeeded immediately to unlimited power, and Charles II returned with acclamation, to inflict upon the nation the most odious and heartless tyranny by which it was ever disgraced. During the suffering for conscience under his reign, the spirit of liberty revived, hurled his brother from the throne, and established British freedom upon a firm, and, we trust, an immovable foundation.

6. Every one must be convinced, upon reflection, that this is really the course indicated by the highest moral excellence. Passive obedience may arise from servile fear; resistance, from vain-glory, ambition, or desire of revolution. Suffering for the sake of right can arise only from a love of justice and a hatred of oppression. The real spirit of liberty can never exist, in any remarkable degree, in any nation where there is not this willingness to suffer in the cause of justice and liberty. Ever so little of the spirit of martyrdom is always a more favorable indication for civilization, than ever so much dexterity of party management, or ever so turbulent protestation of immaculate patriotism.