Page images

life Sells gold ruly

[ocr errors]


and not in the intention of the actor. This is the very infer-
ence which Godwin himself draws from his own principle. In
estimating the morality of actions he says, “ The turning point
is utility. Intention is of no farther value than as it leads to
utility.” This is stripping moral virtue of every moral quality,
which is a gross absurdity.

4. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose
that men may be virtuous in acting, not only without any
intention, but from a positively bad intention. If the virtue of
an action consists altogether in its tendency, it may be as virtu-

ous when it flows from a bad intention, as when it flows from
La good intention, or from no intention at all. The intention of

an agent does not alter the tendency of his action. A man
may do that from a good intention, which has a tendency to do
evil; or he may do that from a bad intention, which has a ten-
dency to do good. Some actions done from the worst inten-
tions, have been the most beneficial to mankind. Joseph's
brethren were extremely malevolent in selling him into Egypt;
but their malevolent conduct promoted the dignity and happi-
ness of Joseph, the preservation of their father and family, as
well as the general good of the Egyptians and surrounding
nations. The perfidy of Judas in betraying his Master was a
malevolent action; but that action, however malignant in its
nature, was in its tendency infinitely beneficial to the whole
world. If then utility be the essence of virtue, the conduct of
Judas and of Joseph's brethren was highly meritorious and
virtuous. But can any man of moral discernment discover any
moral virtue in those malevolent actions ? The conscience of a
heathen would condemn them. Seneca, in his Morals, has a
chapter upon the nature of virtue, in which he maintains that
virtue consists in the intention of the agent to do good, and not
in the utility of his actions. And he illustrates this by a very
pertinent and striking example. He says a certain man stabbed
another in his side, with an intention to kill him, but the wound,
instead of proving fatal, opened an abscess and proved the
occasion of saving his life. Upon this he remarks, that the man
who stabbed his enemy was as criminal as if he had perpe-
trated the murder he intended. With this opinion all mankind
concur; for they never fail to condemn any action as criminal
which appears to proceed from a bad intention, whatever may
be its tendency to promote either individual or public good.
But perhaps it may be here objected that no malevolent action
has a natural or direct tendency to promote happiness, though
it may be overruled to produce a good effect; and in such a
case the indirect tendency of an action cannot constitute it vir-
tuous. Be it so, that no malevolent action has a natural or

[ocr errors]

adloout on

[ocr errors][ocr errors]
[blocks in formation]

euil van produer

gool fut the

direct tendency to promote happiness; yet if virtue consists in utility, the good effect of a malevolent action is just as virtuous as the good effect of a benevolent one. For the doctrine we are considering places all virtue in the tendency of an action, and not in the intention of the agent. And upon this principle, it is wholly immaterial whether the agent has no intention, a good intention, or a bad intention. If tendency alone determines the moral quality of actions, then the most malevolent ones, when overruled for good, may be the most virtuous. Hence the notion that virtue consists in utility, necessarily carries in it this palpable absurdity: that men may be truly and den ut eminently virtuous in their most malevolent conduct. 5. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose

make evil that there is nothing right for wrong in the nature of things

, and weiteren but that virtue and vice depend entrely aporr mere accidental and mutable circumstances. There are certain relations which men bear to each other, and which they bear to their Creator, which create obligations that never can be violated without committing a moral crime. One man is always bound to love another as himself, and it is always wrong to violate this obligation. It is always right that men should love God supremely, and it is always wrong to hate such an infinitely amiable and glorious Being. Right and wrong in these cases does not depend in the least measure upon circumstances. No circumstances can render it right for one man to feel or express malevolence towards another, nor for any created being to feel or express enmity against God. There are innumerable instances in which the duty of moral agents depends upon the nature of things, and in all such instances it cannot be altered by any change of circumstances. But if the essence of virtue consists in utility, it will necessarily follow that any thing which is right to-day may be wrong to-morrow; or any thing which is right in one situation may be wrong in another. A man may think to-day, under present circumstances, it will be for the general good to preserve his neighbor's life, and this will be his duty; but to-morrow, circumstances may be so altered, that he may think it will be for the general good to take away the life of his neighbor, and this will then be his duty. But it is perfectly absurd to suppose that it can ever be right, under any circumstances, to commit murder. This inference so naturally and necessarily results from the doctrine that virtue consists in utility, that Godwin is constrained, though with apparent reluctance, to own that it is right, in some cases, to do that which is wrong in the nature of things. He makes this concession in regard to lying: “ Wherever a great and manifest evil arises from disclosing the truth, and that evil appears to be greater

aguant f pran

than the evil to arise from violating in this instance the general barrier of human confidence and virtue, there the obligation of sincerity is suspended.” This concession applies with equal force to theft, robbery, perjury, murder, and every atrocious action which is absolutely wrong in the nature of things. Whoever admits that virtue consists in utility, must avow this absurd consequence: that there is no essential and immutable difference between virtue and vice. Or in other words, he must admit that the highest malevolence towards God and man may be as amiable and virtuous in one situation, as the highest benevolence in another; and that it is the duty (if there be any such thing as duty,) of every man to exercise the one or the other, according to the circumstances in which he finds himself placed; which palpably contradicts every principle of morality.

6. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that there is nothing in the universe intrinsically good or evil

, but happiness and misery. This idea is so necessarily contained in Godwin's notion of virtue, that he undertakes to state it with peculiar accuracy and precision. “Evil is a term which differs from pain only as it has a more comprehensive meaning. It

It may be defined to signify whatever is painful in itself, or is connected with pain as an antecedent is connected with its consequent. Thus explained, it appears that a thing not immediately painful may be evil, but in a somewhat improper and imperfect sense.

It bears the name of evil not on its own account. Nothing is evil in the fullest sense but pain. To this it may be added, that pain is always evil. Pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, constitute the whole ultimate subject of moral inquiry. There is nothing desirable but the obtaining of the one, and the avoiding of the other. All the researches of human imagination cannot add a single article to this summary of good." But pleasure and pain, happiness and misery, are so far from constituting the whole ultimate object of moral inquiry, that they do not constitute the least part of it. Moral inquiry properly embraces only virtue and vice, or moral good and moral evil, in distinction from natural good and natural evil, or mere pleasure and pain. If there were no moral good in virtue, nor moral evil in vice, then there would be no propriety in using the word moral in any case, or making any distinction between the kinds of good and evil. But if there be an intrinsic excellence in virtue, which is worthy of praise, and an intrinsic turpitude in vice, which is worthy of blame, then there is a propriety in distinguishing moral good and evil from natural pleasure and pain. Now that there is such a distinction between things moral and natural, is intuitively evident to every reflecting mind. Every man clearly

mal mely


moral sense

Ceram sanse


on happines mistry, a plasur.


discerns an intrinsic good in virtue, which he cannot discern in happiness; and an intrinsic evil in vice, which he cannot discern in misery. He feels praise-worthy for benevolence, but not for happiness; and he feels blame-worthy for malevolence, but not for pain or misery. Agreeably to these moral feelings, sound divines have maintained that virtue is to be loved for its own sake, and sin hated for its own sake; and also that God is to be loved for what he is in himself, and not merely for the happiness he enjoys or bestows. But to suppose that pleasure is the only good, and pain the only evil, in the universe, is to suppose, that could the universe enjoy as much happiness without holiness as with it, the universal reign of sin would be as desirable as the universal reign of righteousness. This is found with totally repugnant to every feeling of benevolence, and to every dictate of that moral faculty by which we judge of moral things.

7. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that there is really no such thing as either virtue or vice in the world. If the actions of free agents are either good or evil, solely on account of their tendency to promote either pleasure or pain, then nothing can be predicated of them but advantage or disadvantage. Actions which promote happiness may be denominated advantageous, but not virtuous; and actions which produce misery may be denominated disadvantageous, but not vicious. For there is no virtue in the tendency of an action to do good, aside from the intention of the agent; and there is no criminality in the tendency of an action to do hurt, aside, from the intention of the agent. Hence it necessarily follows that if there be any virtue or vice in an action, it must consist not in its tendency to produce pleasure or pain, but in the pleasure or pain which it actually produces. But we all intui. tively know that there is no more virtue in happiness than in misery, and no more criminality in misery than in happiness. So that if virtue and vice do not consist in the intention of the agent, they cannot be found in human actions. But the doctrine that virtue consists in utility, excludes it entirely from the intention of the agent, which does in reality exclude it from the universe. And thus this doctrine terminates in the greatest of all moral absurdities. But yet,

III. Men are greatly exposed to embrace it. This the apostle plainly intimates, by exhorting Timothy to withdraw himself from those who supposed that gain is godliness.” If that young minister was exposed to imbibe the absurd sentiment that virtue consists in utility, we may naturally conclude that there is still danger of men's falling into this great delusion. Their danger arises from various causes. VOL. IV.



1. From the resemblance which this error bears to the truth, though it be diametrically opposite to it. Those who maintain that virtue consists in utility, represent it under the alluring name of universal philanthropy, which is an imposing appellation. They pretend that happiness is the supreme good, and virtue solely consists in promoting it to the highest degree. They insinuate that this philanthropy directly tends to diffuse universal happiness, and to raise human nature to a state of perfection in this life. Such a representation is extremely agreeable to mankind, who are ardently seeking after temporal felicity, and directly calculated to draw them into the belief that virtue consists in utility, which looks like the doctrine that Paul taught in opposition to the heretics mentioned in the text. They supposed “that gain is godliness ;but he contradicted them by immediately asserting “ that godliness, with contentment, is great gain.” To say that gain is godliness, is to say that utility is virtue; but to say that godliness is gain, is to say that virtue produces utility. There is an essential difference between these two doctrines. The one supposes that gain is the supreme good, but the other supposes that godliness is the supreme good. The one supposes there is an intrinsic excellence in gain only; but the other supposes there is an intrinsic and supreme excellence in godliness. The one supposes it is our duty to seek happiness supremely; but the other supposes it is our duty to make godliness the supreme object of pursuit. But since gain is more agreeable to the human heart than godliness, there is great danger that men will embrace the erroneous sentiment that virtue consists in utility, and duty consists in seeking happiness rather than holiness.

2. The danger will appear greater, if we consider by whom this pleasing and plausible error is disseminated. It is taught by grave divines, in their moral and religious treatises and public discourses. Law and Paley have been mentioned as placing the whole of virtue in utility. Dr. Brown, in his remarks upon the Earl of Shaftsbury's Characteristics, maintains that virtue consists in its tendency to promote individual happiness.

And there are many in this country among the clergy, who believe and teach the same sentiment. These divines, however, do not mean to carry the doctrine that virtue consists in utility so far as they might carry it, or so far as it is actually carried by modern infidels. But when they have once advanced the principle, their readers and hearers may, if they please, draw the natural inferences from it, and carry it into all its destructive consequences.

Many who call themselves moral philosophers, though really skeptics, are warmly engaged in spreading this first principle of

« PreviousContinue »