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

Francis Wayland


Benevolence to the Injurious

THE cases to be considered here are three:
I. Where injury is committed by an individual upon an individual.
II. Where injury is committed by an individual upon society.
III. Where injury is committed by a society upon a society.

I. Where an injury is committed by an individual upon an individual.

In this case, the offender is guilty of wickedness, and of violation of our personal rights.

1. In so far as the action is wicked, it should excite our moral detestation, just as in the case in which wrong is done to any one else.

2. In so far as the wicked man is unhappy, he should excite our pity, and our active effort to benefit him.

3. As the cause of this unhappiness is moral wrong, it is our duty to reclaim him.

4. Inasmuch as the injury is done to us, it is our duty to forgive him. On this condition alone can we hope to be forgiven.

5. Yet more; inasmuch as the injury is done to us, it gives us an opportunity of exercising special and peculiar virtue. It is therefore our special duty to overcome it by good; that is, the duty of reclaiming him from wrong rests specially upon us; and is it to be fulfilled by manifesting towards him particular kindness, and the most cheerful willingness to serve him. “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” That is, it is our special duty, by an exhibition of peculiar benevolence, to reclaim the injurious person to virtue.

Such is plainly the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. It will require but a few words to show that this is the course of conduct indicated by the conditions of our being.

1. I think that every one must acknowledge this to be the course pointed out by the most exalted virtue. Every man’s conscience testifies, that to reward evil with good is noble, while the opposite course is mean. There is nothing more strongly indicative of littleness of spirit, than revenge.

2. This mode of treating injuries has a manifest tendency to put an end to injury, and every form of ill-will:

For, 1. No man can long continue to injure him, who requites injury with nothing but goodness.

2. It improves the heart of the offender, and thus not only puts an end to the injury at that particular time, but also greatly diminishes the probability of its recurrence at any subsequent time. Were this course universally pursued, there would be done on earth the least possible injury.

3. It improves, in the most signal manner, the offended person himself; and thus renders it less likely that he will ever commit an injury himself.

In a word, the tendency of this mode of treating an injurious person, is to diminish Indefinitely the liability to injury, and to render all parties both happier and better.

On the contrary, the tendency of retaliation is exactly the reverse. We should consider,

1. That the offender is a creature of God, and we are bound to treat him as God has commanded. Now, no treatment which we have received from another, gives us, by the law of God, any right to treat him in any other manner than with kindness. That he has violated his duty towards us and towards God, affords no reason why we should be guilty of the same crimes.

2. The tendency of retaliation is, to increase, and foster, and multiply wrongs, absolutely without end. Such, we see, is its effect among savage nations.

3. Retaliation renders neither party better, but always renders both parties worse. The offended party who retaliates does a mean action when he might have done a noble one.

Such, then, is the scriptural mode of adjusting individual differences.

II. When the individual has committed an injury against society.

Such is the case when an offender has violated a law of society and comes under its condemnation. In what way and on what principles is society bound to treat him?

1. The crime being one which, if permitted, would greatly injure if not destroy society, it is necessary that it be prevented. Society has, therefore, a right to take such measures as will insure its prevention. This prevention may always be secured by solitary confinement.

But, this being done, society is under the same obligations to the offender, as the several individuals composing the society are under to him. Hence, 2. They are bound to seek his happiness by reclaiming him; that is, to direct all treatment of him, while under their care, with distinct reference to his moral improvement This is the law of benevolence, and it is obligatory no less on societies than on individuals. Every one must see that the tendency of a system of prison discipline of this kind must be to diminish crime; while that of any other system must be, and always has been, to increase it.

Nor is this chimerical. The whole history of prisons has tended to establish precisely this result. Prisons which have been conducted on the principle of retaliation, have every where multiplied felons; while those which have been conducted on the principle of rendering a prison a school of moral reformation, have, thus far, succeeded beyond even the anticipations of their friends. Such a prison is also the greatest terror to a wicked man; and it ceases not to be so, until he becomes, at least, comparatively virtuous. The whole experience of John Howard is summed up by himself in a single sentence: “It is in vain to punish the wicked, unless you seek to reclaim them.”

By what I have said above, I would not be understood to deny the right of society to punish murder by death. This right, I think, however, is to be established, not by the principles of natural law, but by the command of God to Noah. The precept, in this case, seems to me to have been given to the whole human race, and to be still obligatory.

III. Where one society violates the rights of another society. The principles of the gospel, already explained, apply equally to this as to the preceding cases.

1. The individual has, by the law of God, no right to return evil for evil; but is bound to conduct towards every other individual, of what nation soever, upon the principle of charity.

2. The individual has no right to authorize society to do any thing contrary to the law of God; that is to say, men connected in societies are under the same moral law as individuals. What is forbidden to the one is forbidden also to the other.

3. Hence, I think we must conclude that an injury is to be treated in the same manner; that is, that we are under obligation to forgive the offending party, and to strive to render him both better and happier.

4. Hence, it would seem that all wars are contrary to the revealed will of God, and that the individual has no right to commit to society, nor society to commit to government, the power to declare war.

Such, I must confess, seems to me to be the will of our Creator; and, hence, that, to all arguments brought in favor of war, it would be a sufficient answer, that God has forbidden it, and that no consequences can possibly be conceived to arise from keeping his law, so terrible as those which must arise from violating it. God commands us to love every man, alien or citizen, Samaritan or Jew, as ourselves; and the act neither of society nor of government can render it our duty to violate this command.

But let us look at the arguments offered in support of war.

The miseries of war are acknowledged. Its expense, at last, begins to be estimated. Its effects upon the physical, intellectual, and moral condition of a nation, are deplored. It is granted to be a most calamitous remedy for evils, and the most awful scourge that can be inflicted upon the human race. It will be granted, then, that the resort to it if not necessary, must be intensely wicked and that if it be not in the highest degree useful, it ought to be universally abolished

It is also granted, that the universal abolition of war would be one of the greatest blessings that could be conferred upon the human race. As to the general principle, then, there is no dispute. The only question which arises s, whether it be not necessary for one nation to act upon the principle of offence and defense so long as other nations continue to do the same?

I answer, first. It is granted that it would be better for man in general, if wars were abolished, and all means, both of offence and defense, abandoned. Now, this seems to me to admit, that this is the law under which God has created man. But this being admitted, the question seems to be at an end; for God never places men under circumstances in which it is either wise, or necessary, or innocent, to violate his laws. Is it for the advantage of him who lives among a community of thieves, to steal; or for one who lives among a community of liars, to lie? On the contrary, do not honesty and veracity, under these very circumstances, give him additional and peculiar advantages over his companions?

Secondly. Let us suppose a nation to abandon all means, both of offence and of defense, to lay aside all power of inflicting injury, and to rely for self-preservation solely upon the justice of its own conduct, and the moral effect which such a course of conduct would produce upon the consciences of men. How would such a nation procure redress of grievances? and how would it be protected from foreign aggression?

I. Of redress of grievances. Under this head would be comprehended violation of treaties, spoliation of property, and ill-treatment of its citizens.

I reply, 1. The very fact that a nation relied solely upon the justice of its measures, and the benevolence of its conduct, would do more than any thing else to prevent the occurrence of injury. The moral sentiment of every community would rise in opposition to injury inflicted upon the “just, the kind, and the merciful. Thus, by this course, the probabilities of aggression are rendered as few as the nature of man will permit.

2. But suppose injury to be done. I reply, the proper appeal for moral beings upon moral questions, is not to physical force, but to the consciences of men. Let the wrong be set forth, but be set forth in the spirit of love; and in this manner, if in any, will the consciences of men be around to justice.

3. But suppose this method to fail. Why, then, let us suffer the injury. This is the preferable evil of the two. Because they have injured us a little, it does not follow that we should injure ourselves much. But it will be said, what is then to become of our national honor? I answer, first, if we have acted justly, we surely are not dishonored. The dishonor rests upon those who have done wickedly. I answer again, national honor is displayed in forbearance, in forgiveness, in requiting faithlessness with fidelity, and grievances with kindness and good will. These virtues are surely as delightful and as honorable in nations as in individuals.

But it may be asked, what is to prevent repeated and continued aggression? I answer, first, not instruments of destruction, but the moral principle which God has placed in the bosom of every man. I think that obedience to the law of God, on the part of the injured, is the surest preventive against the repetition of injury. I answer, secondly, suppose that acting in obedience to the law of benevolence will not prevent the repetition of injury, will acting upon the principle of retaliation prevent it? This is really the true question. The evil tempers of the human heart are allowed to exist, and we are inquiring in what manner shall we suffer the least injury from them; whether by obeying the law of benevolence, or that of retaliation? It is not necessary, therefore, to show, that, by adopting the law of benevolence, we shall not suffer at all; but that, by adopting it, we shall suffer less than by the opposite course; and that a nation would actually thus suffer less upon the whole than by any other course, cannot, I think, be doubted by any one who will carefully reflect upon the subject.

II. How would such a nation be protected from external attack and entire subjugation? I answer, by adopting the law of benevolence, a nation would render such an event in the highest degree improbable. The causes of national war are most commonly, the love of plunder, and the love of glory. The first of these is rarely, if ever, sufficient to stimulate men to the ferocity necessary to war, unless when assisted by the second. And by adopting as the rule of our conduct the law of benevolence, all motive arising from the second cause is taken away. There is not a nation in Europe that could be led on to war against a harmless, just, forgiving, and defenseless people.

But suppose such a case really should occur, what are we then to do? I answer, is it certain that we can do better than suffer injury with forgiveness and love, looking up to God, who, in his holy habitation, is the Judge of the whole earth? And if it be said, we shall then all be subjected and enslaved, I answer again, have wars prevented men from being subjected and enslaved? Is there a nation on the continent of Europe that has not been overrun by foreign troops several times, even within the present century? And still more, is it not most commonly the case, that the very means by which we repel a despotism from abroad, only establishes over us a military despotism at home? Since, then, the principle of retaliation will not, with any certainty, save a country from conquest, the real question, as before, is, by obedience to which law will a nation be most likely to escape it, by the law of retaliation, or by that of benevolence? It seems to me, that a man who will calmly reflect, will see that the advantages of war, even in this respect, are much less than they have been generally estimated.

I however would by no means assert that forgiveness of injuries alone is a sufficient protection against wrong. 1 suppose the real protection to be active benevolence. The Scriptures teach us that God has created men, both as individuals and as societies, under the law of benevolence; and that he intends this law to be obeyed. Societies have never yet thought of obeying it in their dealings with each other; and men generally consider the allusion to it as puerile. But this alters not the law of God, nor the punishments which he inflicts upon nations for the violation of it. This punishment I suppose to be war. I believe aggression from a foreign nation to be the intimation from God that we are disobeying the law of benevolence, and that this is his mode of teaching nations their duty, in this respect, to each other. So that aggression seems to me in no manner to call for retaliation and injury, but rather to call for special kindness and good will. And still farther, the requiting evil with good, tends just as strongly to the cessation of all injury, in nations as in individuals. Let any man reflect upon the amount of pecuniary expenditure, and the awful waste of human life, which the wars of the last hundred years have occasioned, and then I will ask him whether it be not evident, that the one hundredth part of this expense and suffering, if employed in the honest effort to render mankind wiser and better, would, long before this time, have banished wars from the earth, and rendered the civilized world like the garden of Eden.

If this be true, it will follow, that the cultivation of a military spirit is injurious to a community, inasmuch as it aggravates the source of the evil, the corrupt passions of the human heart, by the very manner in which it attempt,; to correct the evil itself.

I am aware that all this may be called visionary, romantic, and chimerical. This, however, neither makes it so, nor shows it to be so. The time to apply these epithets will be, when the justness of their application has been proved. And if it be said, these principles may all be very true, but you can never induce nations to act upon them; I answer, If they be true, then God requires us thus to act; and if this be the case, then that nation will be the happiest and the wisest, which is the first to obey his commandments. And, if it be said, that though all this be so, yet such is the present state of man, that until his social character be altered, the necessity of wars will exist; I answer; first, it is a solemn thing to meet the punishments which God inflicts for the transgression of his laws. And, secondly, inasmuch as the reason for this necessity arises from the social wickedness of man, we are under imperative obligations to strive to render that wickedness less; and, by all the means in our power, to cultivate among nations a spirit of mutual kindness, forbearance, justice and benevolence.