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is based upon general expediency. If this theory can be shown to be incapable of being rightly employed, the arguments which prove this are not turned aside by demanding some better theory: nor would they lose their force if we were driven to acknowledge that no general theory of morals is attainable. And even if we are able to construct a sounder and better system, this must be a distinct task; and is not to be confounded with the criticism which we apply to a system which is held, by the objectors now under our review, to be altogether unsatisfactory and false. It would merely produce confusion and needless repetition, to quit this ground, and to mix together the discussion of several systems at once. Yet before quitting the illustration which I have just employed, drawn from the science of Mechanics, I may notice, in the slightest possible manner, the instruction which it suggests with regard to the formation of any other sciences. The science of Mechanics was not deduced, nor could have been deduced, as we have seen, from the general Principle of Least Action, though that Principle is indisputably true. How then was this province of human knowledge so demonstrably proved, and made into so solid and extensive a system of truths, general and particular ! The answer is plain. It was by the consideration, in the first place, of special problems, reasoned upon by means of principles which, in those narrower applications at least, were self-evident; and—in proportion as these limited principles were clearly seen and steadily possessed—by passing from these to others which were true because they included the partial truths at first discovered; and which were applicable to more comprehensive and complex cases:—universal principles which include all possible cases, being arrived at only through these intermediate ones:—and these very general truths being dimly and vaguely apprehended at first ; and never becom
ing, not even at last, the best mode of obtaining practical results.
Now so far as this general description goes, I do not think it at all extravagant to expect that the history of the Science of Mechanics may be a type of the genuine course of real progress in other sciences, even in those which deal with the internal world of thought and feeling, as well as in those that regard only the external world of matter and motion. But the further prosecution and development of this view, if it is permitted to me to trace it to its consequences, must be the work of future years, and of a maturer study of the subject. At present I have ventured to refer to it, only because I would not seem to criticize existing systems, without any steady belief that a better may be found; or to declare a mode of proceeding to be wrong, without knowing which way to look for the right. I shall now return to the reception of Paley's system among English readers.
ESIDES the argument against the doctrine of expediency, derived from the impossibility of applying it, Mr Gisborne stated other objections to Paley's ethical system. He urged that since actions are asserted to be blameable only so far as their consequences are injurious, and since, of the probable consequences, each man is for himself the judge; it follows that, if a man be persuaded that any action, of those which are by the world called crimes, would produce an overweight of good over bad consequences, it ceases to be in him a crime, and becomes a duty: and thus rapine, hypocrisy, perjury, murder, may be entitled to the highest rewards of virtue. With regard to this argument, it goes to prove the untenable character of Paley's pretended analysis of moral obligation, and has already been considered in substance when I spoke of that subject. I may observe, however, that in stating this argument, Mr Gisborne has anticipated the answer sometimes made to it;—that all moral rules must be applied in virtue of the conviction of the agent, and by means of his judgment; and that therefore the difficulty arising from this circumstance, whatever it amount to, is no argument against Paley's principles more than against other system of morals. Mr Gisborne replies, that the system of general utility is not upon an equal footing with other systems in this respect. The teachers of positive independent morality obtain general definite rules; as, not to take what belongs to another—to perform what we promise—and the like. There is no confusion or vagueness in applying such rules. Utility, on the contrary, leads us to no absolute rules; for she has never exhausted the stock of possible consequences. She Confirms such precepts as the above; but still, confirms them as liable to exception, and valid only upon the supposition that nothing unforeseen alters the usual result. I think that we cannot deny that the consideration of general consequences, thus directly employed to establish moral precepts, does, by its nature, leave them charged with a large amount of insecurity and vagueness; and indeed makes them in a great degree precarious. All peremptory and rigorous moral rules become, on this system, as I have already said, rather assumptions made to suit the needs of practical morality, than fair deductions from the principle, supported by just and adequate demonstrations. Mr Gisborne further urged, that Paley's rule is irreconcileable with the Scriptures, which enjoin us not to do evil that good may come: and he condemned, with a very natural severity, a passage to which I have already referred, in which Paley dilutes and almost nullifies this serious command, by terming it a caution, salutary for the most part, the advantage seldom compensating for the violation of the rule. Mr Gisborne was not the only assailant of the Paleian system on its introduction into this University. Dr Pearson, afterwards the Master of Sidney College, also published two pamphlets (in 1800 and 1801), one directed against the theoretical, and the other against the practical part of Paley's ethical work. Some of Dr Pearson's principal objections were aimed at some of the defects of the work in system and reasoning, which its most ardent admirers could hardly deny; as in the case of the confusion (already noticed) which is to be found in Paley's definition of virtue. Dr Pearson's own definition of Virtue is, Voluntary obedience to the will of God. But he contends that the will of God may be ascertained in various ways; by the eternal fitness of things, conformity to truth, the moral sense, and, if really applicable, general utility: any of these principles may, he asserts, be employed in discovering the path of our duties. As a practical rule, this commixture of views fundamentally different, may be admitted; but it may be observed that we should never in this way obtain a sound theory, or a coherent system of ethics. It may be, that each of these principles is true, and that each has its place in a true system: but then, that place must be definite, and must be assigned by the most profound and comprehensive philosophy which belongs to the subject. Such philosophy can never countenance a tumultuary assemblage of all the principles which have ever been propounded, brought together on the supposition that they have all equal and independent rights. In 1797 a defence of Paley's Moral Philosophy against its assailants was attempted by Dr Croft, of Birmingham, formerly of University College, Oxford. But this work was not of a nature to throw much new light upon the subject: and at that period Paley's book was too firmly established as a standard work on morals to need such a defender. It had become a constant and prominent part of the teaching and the examinations carried on in this University, and both by the hold it thus obtained upon the minds of many young men of good ability and good condition, by its own merits of style and execution, and by its congruity with the principles and feelings of a large portion of English society, its views and reasonings had pervaded the whole mass of English thought. Every attempt at general abstract reasoning on moral subjects was made after the manner of the reasonings in Paley's works, and generally, upon the same fundamental principles; and thus, besides the direct operation of the work, there was an indirect influence exerted which, in time, tinged the habits of thinking, reasoning and expression in