The Reading Selection from Review of the Principal Questions of Morals

The Question Stated Concerning the Foundation of Morals

Some actions we all feel ourselves irresistibly determined to approve, and others to disapprove. Some actions we cannot but think right, and others wrong, and of all actions we are led to from some opinion, as either fit to be performed or unfit; or neither fit nor unfit to be performed; that is, indifferent. What the power within us is, which thus determines, is the question to be considered. …

The present enquiry therefore is; whether this be a true account of virtue or not; whether it has or has not a foundation in the nature of its object; whether right and wrong are real characters of actions, or only qualities of our minds; whether, in short, they denote what actions are, or only sensations derived from the particular frame and structure of out natures. …

Having premised these observations; the question now returns—What is the power within us that perceives the distinctions of right and wrong?

My answer is. The Understanding.

In order to prove this, it is necessary to enter into a particular enquiry into the origin of our ideas in general, and the distinct provinces of the understanding and of sense.

Of the Origin of Our Ideas in General

SENSATION and REFLECTION have been commonly reckoned the sources of all our ideas: and Mr. Locke has taken no small pains to prove this. … It is hard to determine exactly what he meant by sensation and reflection. If by the former we understand, the effects arising from the impressions made on our minds by external objects; and by the latter, the notice the mind takes of its own operations; it will be impossible to derive some of the most important of our ideas from them. …

The power, I assert, that understands; or the faculty within us that discerns truth and that compares all the objects of thought, and judges of them, is a spring of new ideas.

If by the former we understand, the effects arising from the impressions made on our minds by external objects; and by the latter, the notice the mind takes of its own operations; it will be impossible to derive some of the most important of our ideas from them. …

As, perhaps, this has not been enough attended to, and as the question to be discussed, is; whether our moral ideas are derived from the understanding or from sense; it will be necessary to state distinctly the different natures and provinces of sense and reason.

To this purpose we may observe, first, that the power which judges of the perceptions of the senses, and contradicts their decisions; which discovers the nature of the sensible qualities of objects, enquires into their their causes, and distinguishes between what is real and what is not real in them, must be a power within us which is superior to sense.

Again, it is plain that one sense cannot judge of the objects of another; the eye, for instance, of harmony, or the ear of colours. The faculty therefore which views and compares the objects of all the senses, cannot be sense. When, for instance, we consider sound and colour together, we observe in them essence, number, identity, diversity, &c. and determine their reality to consist, not in being properties of external substances, but in being modifications of our souls. The power which takes cognizance of all this, and gives rise to these notions, must be a power capable of subjecting all things alike to its inspection, and of acquainting itself with necessary truth and existence.

Sense consists in the obtruding of certain impressions upon us, independently of our wills; but it cannot perceive what they are, or whence they are derived. It lies prostrate under its object, and is only a capacity in the soul of having its own state altered by the influence of particular causes. It must therefore remain a stranger to the objects and causes affecting it. …

Sense presents particular forms to the mind; but cannot rise to any general ideas. It is the faculty of intellect that examines and compares the presented forms, that rises above individuals to universal and abstract ideas; and thus looks downward upon objects, takes in at one view an infinity of particulars, and is capable of discovering general truths.—Sense sees only the outside of things, reason acquaints itself with their natures.— Sensation is only a mode of feeling in the mind; but knowledge implies an active and vital energy of the mind. Feeling pain, for example, is the effect of sense; but the understanding is employed when pain itself is made an object of the mind's reflexion, or held up before it, in order to discover its nature and causes. Mere sense can perceive nothing in the most exquisite work of art; suppose a plant, or the body of an animal; but what is painted in the eye, or what might be described on paper. It is the intellect that must perceive in it order and proportion; variety and regularity; design, connection, art, and power; aptitudes, dependencies, correspondences, and adjustment of parts so as to subserve an end, and compose one perfect whole; things which can never be represented on a sensible organ, and the ideas of which cannot be passively communicated, or stamped on the mind by the operation of external objects.—Sense cannot perceive any of the modes of thinking beings; these can be discovered only by the mind's survey of itself.

In a word, it appears that sense and understanding are faculties of the soul totally different: The one being conversant only about particulars; the other about universals: The one not discerning; but suffering; the other not suffering, but discerning; and signifying the soul's Power of surveying and examining all things, in order to judge of them …

[T]hose … who will allow no other source of our knowledge of matter and motion, than experience; or the information conveyed to the mind through the senses, would do well to consider, whether the three axioms (or laws of motion) on which Sir Isaac Newton founds his philosophy, are not entirely without evidence and meaning.—What is it acquaints us, that every body will for ever continue in the state of rest or motion it is in, unless something produces an alteration of that state; that every alteration of its motion must be proportional to the force impressed, and in the same line of direction , and that its action upon another body, and the action of that other upon it, are always equal and contrary? In other words; what furnishes us with our ideas of resistance and inactivity?—Not experience: for never did any man yet see any portion of matter that was void of gravity, and many other active powers; or that would not immediately quit its state of red, and begin to move; and also lose or acquire motion after the impressing of new force upon it, without any visible or discoverable cause. Ideas so contradictory to sense cannot be derived from it. They must therefore be ascribed to a higher origin.

But though we would suppose them the objects of constant experience, as well as the perceptions of reason, yet, as discovered by the former, they must be very different from what they are, as apprehended by the latter. Though, for instance, experience and observation taught us always, that the alteration of motion in a body is proportional to the impressed force, and made in the line of direction in which this force acts; yet they can teach us this but very imperfectly: they cannot inform us of it with precision and exactness. They can only shew us, that it is so nearly; which, strictly speaking, is the same with not being so at all. The eye of sense is blunt. The conceptions of the imagination are rude and gross, falling infinitely short of that certainty, accuracy, universality, and clearness, which belong to intellectual discernment. …

Richard Price's Unitarian Chapel, Newington Green. Members of his congregation included Mary Wollstonecraft and John Adams. (Fin Fahey, Wikipedia)

First … [e]very perception being the perception of something, implies some kind of reality distinct from and independent of itself; nothing being more grossly absurd, than to suppose the perception, or apprehension of a thing, to be the same with the thing itself. It would be as good sense to suppose examination, the same with the subject examined; the eye, the same with visible objects; memory, the same with the fact remembered; or desire, the same with the object desired. And yet this absurdity seems to be foundation of a system of scepticism which has been lately taught the world.

Of the Origin of Our Ideas of Moral Right and Wrong

LET us now return to our first enquiry, and apply the foregoing observations to our ideas of right and wrong in particular.

'Tis a very necessary previous observation, that our ideas of right and wrong are simple ideas, and must therefore be ascribed to some power of immediate perception in the human mind. He that doubts this, need only try to give definitions of them, which shall amount to more than synonymous expressions Most of the confusion in which the question concerning the foundation of morals has been involved has proceeded from inattention to this remark. There are, undoubtedly, some actions that are ultimately approved, and for justifying which no reason can be assigned; as there are some ends, which are ultimately defined, and for choosing which no reason can be given. Were not this true; there would be an infinite progression of reasons and ends, and therefore nothing could be at all approved or desired.

Supposing then, that we have a power immediately perceiving right and wrong: the point I am now to endeavour to prove, is, that this power is the Understanding, agreeably to the assertion at the end of the first section. I cannot but flatter myself, that the main obstacle to the acknowledgment of this, has been already removed, by the observations made in the preceding section, to shew that the understanding is a power of immediate perception, which gives rise to new original ideas; nor do I think it possible that there should have been many disputes on this subject had this been properly considered. …

As there are some propositions, which, when attended to, necessarily determine all minds to believe them: And as (which will be shewn hereafter) there are some ends, whose natures are such, that, when perceived, all beings immediately and necessarily desire them: So is it very credible, that, in like manner, there are some actions whose natures are such, that, when observed, all rational beings immediately and necessarily approve them. …

I do not at all care what follows from Mr. Hume's assertion, that all our ideas are either impressions, or copies of impressions or from Mr. Locke's assertion that they are all deducible from SENSATION and REFLECTION. The first of these assertions is, I think, destitute of all proof; it supposes when applied in this as well as many other cases, the point in question; and, when pursued to its consequences, ends in the destruction of all truth and the subversion of our intellectual faculties. The other wants much explication to render it consistent with any tolerable account of the original or our moral ideas …

Were the question, what that perception is, which we have of number, diversity, causation or proportion; and whether our ideas of them signify truth and reality perceived by the understanding, or impression made by the objects to which we ascribe them, on our minds; were, I say, this the question, would it not be sufficient to appeal to every man's consciousness? These perceptions seem to me to have no greater pretence to be denominated perceptions of the understanding, than right and wrong.

It is true, some impression of pleasure or pain, satisfaction or disgust, generally attend our perceptions of virtue and vice. But these are merely their effects and concomitants, and not the perceptions themselves, which ought no more to be confounded with them than a particular truth … ought to be confounded with the pleasure that may attend the discovery of it. Some emotion or other accompanies, perhaps all our perceptions; but more remarkably our perceptions of right and wrong. And this is what has led to the mistake of making them to signify nothing but impressions, which error some have extended to all objects of knowledge; and thus have been led into an extravagant and monstrous scepticism.

[L]let any one compare the ideas arising from our powers of sensation, with those arising from our intuition of the natures of things, and enquire which of them his ideas of right and wrong most resemble. On the issue of such a comparison may we safely rest this question. It is scarcely conceivable that any one can impartially attend to the nature of his own perceptions, and determine that, when he thinks gratitude or beneficence to be right, he perceives nothing true of them, and understands nothing, but only receives an impression from a sense. Was it possible for a person to question, whether his idea of equality was gained from sense or intelligence; he might soon be convinced, by considering, whether he is not sure, that certain lines or figures are really equal, and that their equality must be perceived by all minds, as soon as the objects themselves are perceived.—In the same manner may we satisfy ourselves concerning the origin of the idea of right: For have we not a like consciousness, that we discern the one, as well as the other, in certain objects? Upon what possible grounds can we pronounce the one to be sense, and the other reason? Would not a Being purely intelligent, having happiness within his reach, approve of securing it for himself? …

It would, I doubt, be to little purpose to plead further here, the natural and universal apprehensions of mankind, that our ideas of right and wrong belong to the understanding, and denote real characters of actions; because it will be easy to reply, that they have a like opinion of sensible qualities of bodies; and that nothing is more common than for men to mistake their own sensations for the properties of the objects producing them, or to apply to the object itself, what they find always accompanying it, whenever observed. Let it therefore be observed … [t]hat if right and wrong denote effects of sensation, it must imply the greatest absurdity to suppose them applicable to actions: That is; the ideas of right and wrong and of action, must in this case be incompatible; as much so, as the idea of pleasure and a regular form, or of pain and the collisions of bodies.—All sensations, as such, are modes of consciousness, or feelings of a sentient being, which must be of a nature totally different from the particular causes which produce them. A coloured body, if we speak accurately, is the same absurdity with a square sound. We need no experiments to prove that heat, cold, colours, tastes, &c. are not real qualities of bodies; because the ideas of matter and of therefore qualities, are incompatible.—But is there indeed any such incompatibility between actions and right? Or any such absurdity in affirming the one of the other?—Are the ideas of them as different as the idea of a sensation, and its cause ?

On the contrary; the more we enquire, the more indisputable, I imagine, it will appear to us, that we express necessary truth, when we say of some actions, they are right; and of others, they are wrong. Some of the most careful enquirers think thus, and find it out of their power not to be persuaded that these are real distinctions belonging to the natures of actions. Can it be so difficult, to distinguish between the ideas of sensibility and reason; between the intuitions of truth and the passions of the mind? Is that a scheme of morals we can be very fond of, which makes our perceptions of moral good and evil in actions and manners, to be all vision and fancy? Who can help seeing, that right and wrong are as absolutely unintelligible, and void of sense and meaning, when supposed to signify nothing true of actions, no essential, inherent difference between them; as the perceptions of the external and internal senses are, when thought to be properties of the objects that produce them?

How strange would it be to maintain, that there is no possibility of mistaking with respect to right and wrong; that the apprehensions of all beings, on this subject, are alike just, since all sensation must be alike true sensation?—Is there a greater absurdity, than to suppose, that the moral rectitude of an action is nothing absolute and unvarying; but capable, like all the modifications of pleasure and pain, of being intended and remitted, of increasing and lessening, of rising and sinking with the force and liveliness of our feelings? Would it be less ridiculous to suppose this of the relations between given quantities, of the equality of numbers, or the figure of bodies?

In the last place; let it be considered, that all actions, undoubtedly, have a nature. That is, some character certainly belongs to them, and somewhat there is to be truly affirmed of them. This may be, that some of them are right, others wrong. But if this is not allowed; if no actions are, in themselves, either right or wrong, or any thing of a moral and obligatory nature, which can be an object to the understanding; it follows, that, in themselves, they are all indifferent. This is what is essentially true of them, and this is what all understandings, that perceive right, must perceive them to be. But are we not conscious, that we perceive the contrary? And have we not as much reason to believe the contrary, as to believe or truth at all our own discernment? …

In other words; every thing having a nature or essence, from whence such and such truths concerning it necessarily result, and which it is the proper province of the understanding to perceive; it follows, that nothing whatever can be exempted from its inspection and sentence, and that of every thought, sentiment, and subject, it is the natural and ultimate judge. Actions, therefore, ends and events are within its province. Of these, as well as all other objects, it belongs to it to judge.—What is this judgment?—One would think it impossible for any person, without some hesitation and reluctance, to reply; that the judgment he forms of them is this; that they are all essentially indifferent, and that there is no one thing fitter to be done than another. If this judging truly; how obvious is it to infer, that it signifies not what we do; and that the determination to think otherwise, is an imposition upon rational creatures. Why then should they not labour to suppress in themselves this determination, and to extirpate from their natures all the delusive ideas of morality, worth, and virtue? What though the ruin of the world should follow?—There would be nothing really wrong in this.

A rational agent void of all moral judgment, incapable of perceiving a difference, in respect of fitness and unfitness to be performed, between actions, and acting from blind propensions without any sentiments concerning what he does, is not possible to be imagined. And, do what we will, we shall find it out of our power, in earnest to persuade ourselves, that reason can have no concern in judging of and directing our conduct; or to exclude from our minds all notions of right and wrong in actions.

In short; it seems sufficient to overthrow any scheme, that such consequences, as the following, should arise from it:—That no one being can judge one end to be better than another, or believe a real moral difference between actions; without giving his assent to an impossibility; without mistaking the affections of his own mind for truth and sensation for knowledge.—That there being nothing intrinsically proper or improper, just or unjust; there is nothing obligatory; but all beings enjoy, from the reasons of things and the nature of actions, liberty to act as they will.

The following important corollary arises from these arguments:

That morality is eternal and immutable.

Right and wrong, it appears, denote what actions are. Now whatever any thing is, that it is, not by will, or decree, or power, but by nature and necessity. Whatever a triangle or circle is, that it is unchangeably and eternally. It depends upon no will or power, whether the three angles of a triangle and two right ones shall be equal; whether the periphery of a circle and its diameter shall be incommensurable; or whether matter shall be divisible, moveable, passive, and inert. Every object of the understanding has an indivisible and invariable offence; from whence arise its properties, and numberless truths concerning it. Omnipotence does not consist in a power to alter the nature of things, and to destroy necessary truth (for this is contradictory, and would infer the destruction of all wisdom, and knowledge) but in an absolute command over all particular, external existences, to create or destroy them, or produce any possible changes among them.—The natures of things then being immutable; whatever we suppose the natures of actions to be, they must be immutably. If they are indifferent, this indifference is itself immutable, and there neither is nor can be any one thing that, in reality, we ought to do rather than another. The same is to be said of right and wrong, of moral good and evil, as far as they express real characters of actions. They, must immutably and necessarily belong to those actions of which they are truly affirmed.

[Is Morality Based on God's Will?]

No will, therefore, can render any thing good and obligatory, which was not so antecedently, and from eternity; or any action right, that is not so in itself; meaning by action, not the bare external effect produced, but the ultimate principle of conduct, or the determination of a reasonable being, considered as arising from the perception of some motives and reasons and intended for some end. According to this sense of the word action, whenever the principle from which we act is different, the action is different, though the external effects produced, may be the same. If we attend to this, the meaning and truth of what I have just observed, will be easily seen.—Put the case of any action, the performance of which is indifferent, or attended with no circumstances of the agent that render it better or fitter to be done than omitted. Is it not plain that, while all things continue the same, it is as impossible for any will or power to make acting obligatory here, as it is for them to make two equal things unequal without producing any change in either? It is true, the doing of any indifferent thing may become obligatory, in consequence of a command from a being possessed of rightful authority over us: But it is obvious, that in this case, the command produces a change in the circumstances of the agent, and that what, in consequence of it, becomes obligatory, is not the same with what before was indifferent. The external effect, that is, the matter of the action is indeed the same; but nothing is plainer, than that actions in this sense the same, may in a moral view be totally different according, to the ends aimed at by them, and the principles of morality under which they fall.

When an action, otherwise indifferent, becomes obligatory, by being made the subject of a promise; we are not to imagine, that our own will or breath alters the nature of things by making what is indifferent not so. But what was indifferent before the promise is still so; and it cannot be supposed, that, after the promise, it becomes obligatory, without a contradiction. All that the promise does, is, to alter the connexion of a particular effect; or to cause that to be an instance of right conduct which was not so before. There are no effects producible by us, which may not, in this manner, fall under different principles of morality; acquire connexions sometimes with happiness, and sometimes with misery; and thus stand in different relations to the eternal rules of duty.

The objection, therefore, to what is here asserted, taken from the effects of positive laws and promises, has no weight: It appears, that when an obligation to particular indifferent actions arises from the command of the Deity, or positive laws; it is by no means to be inferred from hence, that obligation is the creature of will, or that the nature of what is indifferent is changed; nothing then becoming obligatory, which was not so from eternity; that is, obeying the divine will, and just authority. And had there been nothing right in this, had there been no reason from the natures of things for obeying God's will; it is certain, it could have induced no obligation, nor at all influenced an intellectual nature as such.—Will and laws signify nothing, abstracted from something previous to them, in the character of the law-giver and the relations of beings to one another, to give them force and render disobedience a crime. If mere will ever obliged, what reason can be given, why the will of one being should oblige, and of another not; why it should not oblige alike to every thing it requires; and why there should be any difference between power and authority. It is truth and reason, then, that, in all cases, oblige, and not mere will. So far, we see, is it from being possible, that any will or laws should create right; that they can have no effect, but in virtue of natural and antecedent right.

Thus, then, is morality fixed on an immoveable basis, and appears not to be, in any sense, factitious; or the arbitrary production of any power human or divine; but equally everlasting and necessary with all truth and reason. And this we find to be as evident, as that right and wrong signify a reality in what is so denominated.