Oldalképek
PDF
ePub

neous, inasmuch as it is opposed to the fixed and immutable distinctions of morality: it can only be viewed as a satirical representation of the vices of some of the species : it therefore, neither requires nor merits any further refutation.

The theory of Clarke and of Wollaston (for the theory supported by both these distinguished writers, though somewhat differently expressed, is radically the same) is of an opposite description. It is the system, not only of men of genius, but of men who were lovers of what is virtuous and noble in our common nature. According to them, virtue consists in acting agreeably to the fitness, or to the truth of things.

It is undoubtedly fit, or congruous, that a moral agent should act virtuously, and it is unfit and incongruous, that he should act viciously; but it is also obvious that there is a fitness in all that takes place under the natural and moral government of God for producing certain effects. There is in vice an adaptation to produce misery, as there is in virtue to produce happiness, and the fitness in the one case is as great as that in the other.

This theory assumes what its authors design it to account for and explain,—the origin of moral distinctions. To say that virtue consists in acting according to the fitness of things, is only saying, that virtue consists in acting in conformity with virtue,-a position which contains nothing original or new.

The authors of this doctrine, though they have failed in accomplishing that for which their theory was formed and set forth, have had the merit, by the illustrations which they have employed in its exposition, of

[ocr errors]

presenting in a forcible light, the arguments which prove that man is now placed under a supreme system of moral government.

Their reasonings also have the tendency of clearly shewing the immutability of moral distinctions, and that man cannot be vicious without being criminal and miserable.

It ought also to be remarked, that while they have fallen into the error of regarding all morality as the object of the understanding exclusively, they have avoided the opposite, and much more dangerous error, of considering it solely as matter of sensation and feeling. Morality, as has been already shewn, is the object both of that moral feeling or sense with which our nature is endowed, and of that reason which is the chief characteristic of man. “ It is by reason that we discover those general rules of justice by which we ought to regulate our actions; and it is by the same faculty that we form those more vague and indeterminate ideas of what is prudent, of what is decent, of what is generous and noble.”

The principle of Hume's theory of morals is the doctrine of utility; the falseness of which, as the measure and rule of virtue, has been already fully shewn. If the question were, Do virtuous actions conduce to the happiness of their authors and of mankind, we should, without hesitation, answer in the affirmative. It is quite a different thing to assert, that the tendency to produce this happiness is the sole ground of moral distinctions.

Mr. Hume, the very ingenious advocate of this doctrine, has himself furnished the argument by which we may prove it to be untenable. “ We ought not to

imagine,” says he," because an inanimate object may be useful as well as a man, that, therefore, it ought also, according to this system, to merit the appellation of virtuous. The sentiments excited by utility are in the two cases very different; and the one is mixed with affection, esteem, approbation, and not the other.”

Now, if the affection, esteem, and approbation with which we contemplate the moral actions of moral agents, are not excited when we contemplate the utility of a steam-engine, it follows that virtue is not constituted and measured by mere utility. Actions are not accounted virtuous as they appear to be useful, but in consequence of something else of which usefulness is only an accompaniment. It is thus evident, that “moral esteem and approbation are not commensurable with mere physical usefulness; but are feelings of a peculiar class, which even he, who would represent actions as felt to be virtuous only because they are regarded as physically useful, is obliged to pre-suppose. Why should I love that which may be productive of benefit to all the individuals of the world, more than that which would be productive of similar benefit only to one individual. Or, to put a question still stronger, why should I love that which would be of advantage even to one individual, more than that which would be of injury to every being but myself? The only answer which can be given, even according to the theory that supposes all virtue to consist in utility is, that it is impossible for me, by my very nature, not to feel approbation of that which is generally useful; disapprobation of that which is in its general consequences hurtful.”

Hence the assumption of that moral feeling, the origin of which it is the avowed design of the advocate of the theory of utility to account for and explain.

The selfish system of morals is only a modification of the theory of utility. It represents each individual as acting, not for the general good, but for his own personal gratification and advantage. The remarks which have been made on this system, as advocated by Paley, are sufficient to shew its futility. It is proved by our moral feelings, and by the testimony of scripture, to be false. Of all the modifications of the selfish system, this is the most exceptionable, since it connects the excess of selfishness with the image of Him who is infinitely good, and whose tender mercies are over all his works.

The last system of morals to which I shall allude is that of Dr. Smith, as expounded in his theory of Moral Sentiments,-a work, the fascinating eloquence of which is far above any eulogium of mine. In its minor details and illustrations, it is perhaps unrivalled in the depth of thought and philosophical beauty which are exhibited. It is not, however, to these, but to its leading doctrine, that I would direct the attention of the reader.

To this doctrine I alluded when treating of the affections. We do not, according to Dr. Smith, approve or disapprove of actions immediately on our becoming acquainted with their nature and consequences. It is previously necessary that we sympathize with, or enter into, the feelings of the agent, and place ourselves in the circumstances of him who is the object of the action. If we can fully sympathize with the agent,

1

we approve of his action as suitable and proper; if, by placing ourselves in the circumstances of the object of the action, we can sympathize with his grateful feelings, we consider the agent as possessing merit. If we are incapable of sympathizing with the agent, we view the action as improper. We consider him worthy of reward when we can sympathize with the gratitude of others, and of punishment when we sympathize with their resentment. In a word, the merit or demerit of the agent in every case, according to this system, can only be discovered by that sympathetic tendency of our nature which enables us to place ourselves in the situation of those whom his action has benefited or injured.

• That there may be some correspondence of sentiments between the spectator and the person principally concerned, the spectator must, first of all, endeavour as much as he can, to put himself in the situation of the other, and to bring home to himself every little circumstance which can possibly affect him. He must adopt the whole case of his companion, with all its minutest incidents; and strive to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation upon which his sympathy is founded."

The great error of this theory is, that it takes for granted the existence of those moral feelings the origin of which it is its design to trace to that sympathetic process just described. Had we not been rendered capable by the author of our being of judging of actions as right and wrong, and of moral agents as

* Theory of Moral Sentiments, vol. i. p. 34.

« ElőzőTovább »