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I will not undertake to say that the words obligation and obliged are used uniformly in this sense, or always with this distinction : nor is it possible to tie down popular phrases to any constant signification : but wherever the motive is violent enough, and coupled with the idea of command, authority, law, or the will of a superior, there, I take it, we always reckon ourselves to be obliged. .
And from this account of obligation it follows, that we can be obliged to nothing, but what we ourselves are to gain or lose something by; for nothing else can be a 'violent motive' to us. As we should not be obliged to obey the laws, or the magistrate, unless rewards or punishments, pleasure or pain, somehow or other, depended upon our obedience; so neither should we, without the same reason, be obliged to do what is right, to practise virtue, or to obey the commands of God.
ANNOTATION. 'I will not undertake to say that the words 'obligation and
'obliged' are used uniformly in this sense.' Certainly no one can be fairly called on to give a definition that shall embrace every sense of these words. But Paley's definition would be thought by most persons to be not applicable at all to the case of what is called moral obligation. A planter's slave, for instance, is urged by a violent motive-a very violent one,—to work in the fields at his master's command, and sometimes to assist in flogging his fellow-labourers. But though he is obliged to do this, few, except slave-owners, would call this a moral obligation, or would deny his being justified in escaping when he had an opportunity, into a free country.
If it should be said that the master has no just right over him, and is not therefore a rightful superior,' this would be to recognise a Moral-faculty. But if every one is a 'superior who has power to enforce submission, the slave-owner is such ; and so is the robber who holds a pistol to your head.
THE QUESTION, WHY AM I OBLIGED TO KEEP MY WORD ?'
RESUMED T ET it be remembered, that to be obliged, is 'to be urged by I a violent motive, resulting from the command of another.'
And then let it be asked, Why am I obliged to keep my word ? and the answer will be, because I am urged to do so. hy a violent motive' (namely the expectation of being after this life rewarded, if I do, or punished for it if I do not), 'resulting from the command of another' (namely of God).
This solution goes to the bottom of the subject, as no further question can reasonably be asked.
Therefore, private happiness is our motive, and the will of God our rule.
When I first turned my thoughts to moral speculations, an air of mystery seemed to hang over the whole subject; which arose, I believe, from hence,—that I supposed, with many authors whom I read, that to be obliged to do a thing, was very different from being induced only to do it; and that the obligation to practise virtue, to do what is right, just, &c., was quite another thing, and of another kind, than the obligation which a soldier is under to obey his officer, a servant his master; or any of the civil and ordinary obligations of human life. Whereas, from what has been said it appears, that moral obligation is like all other obligations; and that obligation is nothing more than an inducement of sufficient strength, and resulting, in some way, from the command of another.
There is always understood to be a difference between an act of prudence and an act of duty. Thus, if I distrust a man who owed me a sum of money, I should reckon it an act of prudence to get another person bound with him ; but I should hardly call it an act of duty. On the other hand, it would be thought a very unusual and loose kind of language to say, that, as I had made such a promise, it was prudent to performs it; or that, as my friend, when he went abroad, placed a box of jewels in my hands, it would be prudent in me to preserve it for him till he returned.
Now in what, you will ask, does the difference consist ?
inasmuch as, according to our account of the matter, both in the one case and the other,-in acts of duty as well as acts of prudence,—we consider solely what we ourselves shall gain or lose by the act.
The difference, and the only difference, is this; that in the one case, we consider what we shall gain or lose in the present world: in the other case, we consider also what we shall gain or lose in the world to come.
They who establish a system of morality, independent of a future state, must look out for some different idea of moral obligation, unless they can show that virtue conducts the possessor to certain happiness in this life, or to a much greater share of it than he could attain by a different behaviour.
To us there are two great questions :
I. Will there be after this life any distribution of rewards and punishments at all ?
II. If there be, what actions will be rewarded, and what will be punished ?
The first question comprises the credibility of the Christian religion, together with the presumptive proofs of a future retribution from the light of nature. The second question comprises the province of morality. Both questions are too much for one work. The affirmative therefore of the first, although we confess that it is the foundation upon which the whole fabric rests, must in this treatise be taken for granted.
Why am I obliged to keep my word ?' "The irrelevancy,' says Professor Whewell, of Paley's mode of treating the question of the Moral sense is so generally allowed at present that we need not dwell on it here. But we may observe, that other mistakes, flowing from a like misapprehension, affect his analysis of virtue. He endeavours to make an advance in this inquiry by the question, “ Why am I obliged to keep my word, or to do any other moral act ?' And by his
Preface to Dissertation prefixed to Encyclopædia Britannica,
answer to this question, he reduces Moral obligations to two elements—external restraint, and the command of a superior. This attempt at an analysis of Morality is singularly futile : for, of the two supposed elements, external constraint annihilates the morality of the act, and the reference to a superior presupposes Moral obligation, since a superior is one whom it is our duty to obey. If Paley had stated his question in the simpler form, 'Why ought I to keep my word ?' he would have had before him a problem more to the purpose of Moral philosophy, and one to which his answer would have been palpably inapplicable.'
It has been suggested that Paley might, conceivably, have maintained, that perhaps there had been an ancient revelation (though there is no record of it in the Book of Genesis) teaching that God would reward or punish in another world certain kinds of actions; and that men thereupon, adopting Paley's ground of distinction, applied the word ' Duty' in cases where they calculated on what they were to 'gain or lose in the next world ;' and 'Prudence,' in cases where the present world alone is concerned ; that this revelation was afterwards forgotten, along with the knowledge of the true God; but that the custom remained, and prevailed throughout all languages, of thus distinguishing the two classes of actions. It might be replied that there is nothing but unsupported conjecture for such a theory, and there are many improbabilities in it. But I think the main consideration is, that men never do, and, apparently, never did, account any conduct virtuous which they believe to have proceeded entirely from calculations of self-interest ; even though the external act itself be such as they conceive would have been done by a virtuous man.
"There is always understood to be a difference between an act of
. prudence and an act of duty.' Not only is this true, but the distinction is fully recognised by those who had no notion of a World to come,' and who made no reference to any divine command : by Aristotle, for instance, in his Ethics, who speaks therein of death as, the
boundary, beyond which there is neither good nor evil;' and by Cicero in his De Officiis, who gives distinct treatises on the [Honestum] virtuous, and the [Utile] expedient; and who derides the idea of fearing the wrath of Jupiter, and evidently believed in no personal existence after death.
And all the ancient heathen writers use words which evidently signify what we call ‘Virtue’— Duty'—'Moral-goodness ;' which words could not possibly have found their way into the languages of men destitute (as most of them were) of any belief in a future state of retribution, if Paley's theory were correct. It is disproved not by any supposed truth and soundness in the views of the ancient Writers, but by the very words they employ.
Some few individuals, it is well known, are to be found who labour under that curious defect of vision, the non-perception of colours. Though their sight is good in other respects, they perceive only darker and lighter shades, as we do in a print, or a pencil-drawing. Now if we could conceive a whole Nation labouring under this defect, we might be sure they would not have in their language any such words as red, green, yellow, and blue. And we may be no less certain that a nation having no more belief in a world to come than the ancient Greeks and Romans, would have had no words in their language answering to · Virtue,' or 'Duty,' supposing men’s notions on the subject were wholly and solely derived from considerations relating to the next world.
Some persons are apt to fall into indistinctness of language, and confusion of thought, on this subject, from not taking care to distinguish between our moral judgment on some particular cases, and our notion of Duty generally. On any particular point, a pious man will be ready, if he is convinced that a divine command has been given, to obey it at once without further inquiry ; taking for granted that it is right, though he may not see the reason of it. But this is not from his having no notion at all, generally, of anything being in itself right or wrong, and knowing no meaning of the word ' good, except what is commanded by a superior power. On the contrary, he acts as he does from his general trust in God's goodness, and just claim to obedience. For, in this or that particular point, a divine command may make that a duty which was not so before. But this can only be when the command is given to a Being endowed with a moral sense, which enables him to perceive that there is such a thing as Duty, and that God has a rightful claim to be obeyed, even when the reason of his commands is not perceived.