Moral Philosophy

Chapter VI: Of the Origin of Moral Obligation.

Section I. -- Of the natural difference between Good and Evil.

1. A GRANITE boulder lying on an upland Moor stands indifferently the August sun and the January frost, flood and drought. It neither blooms in spring, nor fades in autumn. It is all one to the boulder whether it remain in the picturesque solitude where the glacier dropped it, or be laid in the glitter of a busy street. It has no growth nor development: it is not a subject of evolution: there is no goal of perfection to which it is tending by dint of inward germinal capacity seconded by favourable environment. Therefore it does not matter what you do with it: all things come alike to that lump of rock.

2. But in a cranny or cleft of the same there is a little flower growing. You cannot do what you will with that flower. It has its exigencies and requirements. Had it a voice, it could say, what the stone never could: 'I must have this or that: I must have light, I must have moisture, a certain heat, some soil to grow in.' There is a course to be run by this flower and the plant that bears it, a development to be wrought out, a perfection to be achieved. For this end certain conditions are necessary, or helpful: certain others prejudicial, or altogether intolerable. In fact, that plant has a progressive nature, and therewith is a subject of good and evil. Good for that plant is what favours its natural progress, and evil is all that impedes it.

3. All organic natures are progressive: that is, each individual of them is apt to make a certain progress, under certain conditions, from birth to maturity. But man alone has his progress in any degree in his own hands, to make or to mar. Man alone, in the graphic phrase of Appius Claudius, is faber fortunatae suae, "the shaper of his own destiny." Any other plant or animal, other than man, however miserable a specimen of its kind it finally prove to be, has always done the best for itself under the circumstances; it has attained the limit fixed for it by its primitive germinal capacity, as modified by the events of its subsequent environment. The miserable animal that howls under your window at night, is the finest dog that could possibly have come of his blood and breeding, nurture and education. But there is no man now on earth that has done all for himself that he might have done. We all fall short in many things of the perfection that is within our reach. Man therefore needs to stir himself, and to be energetic with a free, self-determined energy to come up to the standard of humanity. It is only his free acts that are considered by the moralist. Such is the definition of Moral Science, that it deals with human acts; acts, that is, whereof man is master to do or not to do. (c. i., nn. i, 2.)

4. We have it, then, that a morally good act is an act that makes towards the progress of human nature in him who does it, and which is freely done, Similarly, a morally evil act is a bar to progress, or a diversion of it from the right line, being also a free act. Now, that act only can make for the progress of human nature, which befits and suits human nature, and suits it in its best and most distinctive characteristic. What is best in man, what characterises and makes man, what the old schoolmen called the form of man, is his reason. To be up to reason is to be up to the standard of humanity. Human progress is progress on the lines of reason. To make for that progress, and thereby to be morally good, an act must be done, not blindly, brutishly, sottishly, or on any impulse of passion, however beneficial in its effects, but deliberately, and in conscious accordance with the reasonable nature of the doer.

5. Whatever be man's end and highest good, he must go about to compass it reasonably. He must plan, and be systematic, and act on principle. For instance, if the public health be the highest good, the laws which govern it must be investigated, and their requirements carried out, without regard to sentiment. If pleasure be the good, we must be artists of pleasure. If, however, as has been seen (c. ii.) the highest good of man is the highest play of reason herself in a life of contemplation, to be prepared for, though it cannot be adequately and worthily lived, in this world, then it is through following reason, through subjecting appetite to reason by temperance, and the will to reason by justice, and reason herself by a "reasonable service" to God, that this end and consummation must be wrought out. Thus, in Plato's phrase (Rep., 589 B), the moral man acts so that "the inner man within him, the rational part of his nature, shall be strongest; while he watches with a husbandman's care over the many-headed beast of appetite, rearing and training the creature's tame heads and not letting the wild ones grow; for this purpose making an ally of the lion, the irascible part of his nature, and caring for all the parts in common, making them friends to one another and to himself." In this way he will meet the true exigency of his nature as a whole, with due regard to the proper order and subordination of the arts. He who lives otherwise, acts in contradiction to his rational self. (c. v., s. iii., n. 3, P. 74).

6. The result of the above reasoning, if result it has, should be to explain and justify the Stoic rule, naturae convenienter vivere, to live according to nature. But some one will say: 'That is the very ideal of wickedness: all good in man comes of overcoming nature, and doing violence to natural cravings: live according to nature, and you will go straight to the devil.' I answer: 'live according to a part of your nature, and that the baser and lower, though also the more impetuous and clamorous part, and you will certainly go where you say: but live up to the whole of your nature, as explained in the last paragraph, and you will be a man indeed, and will reach the goal of human happiness.' But again it may be objected, that our very reason, to which the rest of our nature is naturally subordinate, frequently prompts us to do amiss. The objection is a just one, in so far as it goes upon a repudiation of the old Platonic position, that all moral evil comes of the body, wherein the soul is imprisoned, and of the desires which the body fastens upon the soul. Were that so, all sins would be sins of sensuality. But there are spiritual sins, not prompted by any lust or weakness of the body, as pride and mutiny, self-opiniatedness, rejection of Divine revelation. The objection turns on sins such as these. The answer is, that spiritual sins do not arise from any exigency of reason, but from a deficiency of reason; not from that faculty calling upon us, as we are reasonable men, to take a certain course, in accordance with a just and full view of the facts of the case, but from reason failing to look facts fully in the face, and considering only some of them to the neglect of others, the consideration of which would alter the decision. Thus a certain proud creature mentioned in Scripture thought of the magnificence of the throne above the stars of God, on the mountain of the covenant, on the sides of the north: he did not think how such a pre-eminence would become him as a creature. He had in view a rational good certainly, but not a rational good for him. Partial reason, like a little knowledge, is a dangerous thing.

7. As it is not in the power of God to bring it about, that the angles of a triangle taken together shall amount to anything else than two right angles, so it is not within the compass of Divine omnipotence to create a man for whom it shall be a good and proper thing, and befitting his nature, to blaspheme, to perjure himself, to abandon himself recklessly to lust, or anger, or any other passion. God need not have created man at all, but He could not have created him with other than human exigencies. The reason is, because God can only create upon the pattern of His own essence, which is imitable, outside of God, in certain definite lines of ability. These possibilities, founded upon the Divine essence and discerned by the Divine intelligence, are the Archetype Ideas, among which the Divine will has to choose, when it proceeds to create. The denial of this doctrine in the Nominalist and Cartesian Schools, and their reference to the arbitrary will of God of the eternal, immutable, and absolutely necessary relations of possible things, is the subversion of all science and philosophy.

8. Still less arc moral distinctions between good and evil to be set down to the law of the State, or the fashion of society. Human convention can no more constitute moral good than it can physical good, or mathematical or logical truth. It is only in cases where two or more courses are tolerable, and one of them needs to be chosen and adhered to for the sake of social order, that human authority steps in to elect and prescribe one of those ways of action, and brand the others as illegitimate, which would otherwise be lawful. This is called the making of a positive law.

Readings. -- St. Thos., 1a 2ae, q. 18, art. 5, in corp.; 1a 2ae, q. 71, art. 2 Plato, Rep., 588 B to end of bk. ix. Ar., Eth., IX., iv., nn. 4-10; Suarez, De Legibus, II., vi., nn. 4, II; Cicero, De Legibus, i., cc. 15-17.

Section II. -- How Good becomes bounden Duty, and Evil is advanced to Sin.

1. The great problem of Ethics is the explanation of the idea, I ought. (c. i., n. 6.) We are now come close up to the solution of that problem. The word ought denotes the necessary bearing of means upon end. To every ought there is a pendent if. The means ought to be taken, if the end is to be secured. Thus we say: 'You ought to start betimes, if you are to catch your train.' 'You ought to study harder, if you are to pass your examination.' The person spoken to might reply: 'But what if I do miss my train, and fail in my examination?' He might be met with another ought: 'You ought not to miss the one, if you are to keep your appointment: or to fail in the other, if you are to get into a profession.' Thus the train of oughts and ifs extends, until we come finally to a concatenation like the following: 'You ought not to break your word, or to give needless pain to your parents, if you don't want to do violence to that nature which is yours as a reasonable being,' or 'to thwart your own moral development,' -- and so on in a variety of phrases descriptive of the argument of the last section. were it seems the chain is made fast to a staple in the wall. If a person goes on to ask, 'Well, what if I do contradict my rational self?' -- we can only tell him that he is a fool for his question. The oughts, such as those wherewith our illustration commenced, Kant calls the hypothetical imperative, the form being, 'You must, unless:' but the ought wherein it terminated, he calls the categorical imperative, the alternative being such as no rational man can accept, and therefore no alternative at all.

2. This doctrine of the Categorical Imperative is correct and valuable so far as it goes. But then it does not go far enough. The full notion of what a man ought, is what he must do under pain of sin. Sin is more than folly, more than a breach of reason. It is mild reproach to a great criminal to tell him that he is a very foolish person, a walking unreasonableness. If he chooses to contradict his rational self, is not that his own affair? Is he not his own master, and may he not play the fool if he likes? The answer is, 'No, he is not his own master; he is under law, and his folly and self-abuse becomes criminal and sinful, by being in contravention of the law that forbids him to throw himself away thus wantonly.'

3. Kant readily takes up this idea, shaping it after his own fashion. He contends, -- and herein his doctrine is not merely deficient, but positively in error, -- that the Categorical Imperative, uttered by a man's own reason, has the force of a law, made by that same reason; so that the legislative authority is within the breast of the doer, who owes it obedience. This he calls the autonomy of reason. It is also called Independent Morality, inasmuch as it establishes right and wrong without regard to external authority, or to the consequences of actions, or to rewards and punishments. The doctrine is erroneous, inasmuch as it undertakes to settle the matter of right and wrong without reference to external authority; and inasmuch as it makes the reason within a man, not the promulgator of the law to him, but his own legislator. For a law is a precept, a command: now no one issues precepts, or gives commands, to himself. To command is an act of jurisdiction; and Jurisdiction, like justice (see c. v., s. ix., n. 1, p. 102) requires a distinction of persons, one ruler, and another subject. But the reason in a man is not a distinct subject from the will, appetites, or other faculties within him, to which reason dictates: they are all one nature, one person, one man ; consequently, no one of them can strictly be said to command the rest; and the dictate of reason, as emanating from within oneself, is not a law. But without a law, there is no strict obligation. Therefore the whole theory of obligation is not locked up in the Categorical Imperative, as Kant formulated it.

4. The above argumentation evinces that God is not under an law; for there is no other God above Him to command Him. As for the ideas of what is meet and just in the Divine intelligence, though the Divine will, being a perfect will, is not liable to act against them, yet are those ideas improperly called a law to the Divine will, because intellect and will are identified in one God. Kant's doctrine makes us all gods. It is a deification of the human intellect, and identification of that intellect with the supreme and universal Reason; and at the same time a release of the human will from all authority extraneous to the individual. This amounts to a putting off of all authority properly so called, and makes each man as sovereign and unaccountable as his Maker. " Thy heart is lifted up, and thou hast said: I am God, and sit in the chair of God: and hast set thy heart as if it were the heart of God whereas thou art a man and not God. (Ezech. xxviii. 2.) Kant is thus the father of the pantheistic school of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel.

5. But it has been contended that this phrase about a man who does wrong breaking a law, is only a metaphor and figure of speech, unless it be used with reference to the enactment of some civil community. Thus John Austin says that a natural law is a law which is not, but which he who uses the expression thinks ought to be made. At this rate sin is not a transgression of any law, except so far as it happens to be, in the lawyer's sense of the word, a crime, or something punishable in a human court of justice. There will then be no law but man's law. How then am I obliged to obey man's law? Dr. Bain answers: " Because, if you disobey, you will be punished." But that punishment will be either just or unjust: if unjust, it originates no obligation: if just, it presupposes an obligation, as it presupposes a crime and sin, that is, an obligation violated. There seems to be nothing left for John Austin but to fall back upon Kant and his Categorical Imperative, and say that whoever rebels against the duly constituted authority of the State in which he lives, is a rebel against the reason that dwells within his own breast, and which requires him to behave like a citizen. So that ultimately it is not the State, but his own reason that he has offended; and the State has no authority over him except what his own reason gives.

6. If this were true, there would be no sin anywhere except what is called philosophical sin, that is, a breach of the dignity of man's rational nature; and the hardest thing that could be said in reprobation of a wrongdoer, would be that he had gone against himself, and against his fellow-men, by outraging reason, the common attribute of the race.

7. Far worse than that has the sinner done. He has offended against his own reason, and thereby against a higher Reason, substantially distinct from his, standing to it in the relation of Archetype to type, a Living Reason, empsuchos logos (cf. Ar., Eth., V., iv., 7), purely and supremely rational. The Archetype is outraged by the violation of the type. Moreover, as the two are substantially distinct, the one being God, the other a faculty of man, there is room for a command, for law. A man may transgress and sin, in more than the philosophical sense of the word: he may be property a law-breaker, by offending against this supreme Reason, higher and other than his own.

8. Here we must pause and meditate a parable. -- There was a certain monastery where the monks lived in continual violation of monastic observance. Their Abbot was a holy man, a model of what a monk ought to be. But though perfectly cognisant of the delinquencies of his community, he was content to display to his subjects the edifying example of his own life, and to let it appear that he was aware of their doings and pained at them. He would croon softly as he went about the house old Heli~'s words: " Not so, my sons, not so: why do ye these kind of things, very wicked things?" But the monks took no notice of him. It happened in course of time that the Abbot went away for about ten days. What he did in that time, never transpired: though there was some whisper of certain "spiritual exercises," which he was said to have been engaged in. Certain it is, that he returned to his monastery, as he left it, a monk devout and regular: the monk was the same, but the Abbot was mightily altered. The morning after his arrival, a Chapter was held; the Abbot had the Rule read from cover to cover, and announced his intention of enforcing the same. And he was as good as his word. Transgressions of course abounded: but the monks discovered that to transgress was quite a different thing now from what it had been. Seeing the law proclaimed, and the Abbot in earnest to enforce it, they too reformed themselves. The few who would not reform had to leave. The subsequent holy lives of those monks do not enter into this history.

9. Now, we might fancy God our Lord like the Abbot of that monastery in the early years of his rule. We might fancy the Supreme Reason, displeased indeed, as Reason must be, at the excesses and follies of mankind, but not otherwise commanding men to avoid those evil courses. Were God to be thus quiescent, what we have called (n. 6) philosophical sin, would indeed carry this additional malice, beyond what was there set down, of being an offence against God, but it would not be a grievous offence: for it would not be a sin in the proper sense of the term, not being a transgression of the law of God, inasmuch as God, by the supposition, would have given no law. But the supposition itself is absurd. God could not so withhold His command. He is free indeed not to command, but that only by not creating. If He wills to have creatures, He must likewise will to bind them to certain lines of action: which will to bind in God is a law to the creature.

10. This assertion, that God cannot but will to bind His creatures to certain lines of action, must be proved, though in the ascent we have to mount to high regions, and breathe those subtle airs that are wafted round the throne of the Eternal. As God is the one source of all reality and of all power, not only can there be no being which He has not created and does rot still preserve, but no action either can take place without His concurrence. God must go with His every creature in its every act: otherwise, on the creature's part, nothing could be done. Now, God cannot be indifferent what manner of act He shall concur unto. A servant or a subject may be indifferent what command he receives: he may will simply to obey, -- to go here or there, as he is bid, or to be left without orders where he is. That is because he leaves the entire direction and management of the household to his master. But for God to be thus indifferent what action He should lend His concurrence to, would be to forego all design and purpose of His own as to the use and destiny of the creatures which He has made and continually preserves. This God cannot do, for He cannot act aimlessly. It would be renouncing the direction of His own work, and making the creature Ills superior. God is incapable of such renunciation and subservience. He must, then, will the cooperation which He lends, and the concurrent action of the creature, to take a certain course, regulated and prescribed by Himself: which is our proposition, that God cannot but will to bind His creatures to certain lines of action. If His free creatures choose to stray from these lines, God indeed still cooperates, and to His cooperation is to be ascribed the physical goodness of the action, not its moral inordinateness and inopportuneness. Still, as the action is morally inordinate, God may be said to cooperate, in a manner, where He would not: whence we gather some conception of the enormity of sin. (See c. vii., nn. 5, 6, pp. 130, 131.)

11. The lines of action laid down and prescribed by Godare not arbitrary and irrespective of the subject of the command. They are determined in each case by the nature of the subject. The Author of Nature is not apt to subvert that order which proceeds from Himself. He bids every creature act up to that nature wherein He has created it. His commands follow the line of natural exigency. What this natural exigency amounts to in man in regard to his human acts, we have already seen. (c. vi., s. i., p. 109.)

12. The difference between a necessary and a free agent is, that the former is determined by its matter to act in a certain way, and cannot act otherwise: the latter may act in more ways than one. Still, as we have seen, the nature even of a free agent is not indifferent to all manner of action. It requires, though it does not constrain, the agent to act in certain definite ways, the ways of moral goodness. Acting otherwise, as he may do, the free agent gainsays his own nature, taken as a whole, a thing that a necessary agent can nowise do. God therefore who, as we have shown, wills and commands all creatures whatsoever to act on the lines of their nature, has especial reason to give this command to His rational creatures, with whom alone rests the momentous freedom to disobey.

13. We are now abreast of the question, of such burning interest in these days, as to the connection of Ethics with Theology, or of Morality with Religion. I will not enquire whether the dogmatic atheist is logically consistent in maintaining any distinction between right and wrong: happily, dogmatic atheists do not abound. But there are many who hold that, whether there bea God or no, the fact ought not to be imported into Moral Science: that a Professor of Ethics, as such, has no business with the name of the Almighty on his lips, any more than a lecturer on Chemistry or Fortification. This statement must be at once qualified by an important proviso. If we have any duties of worship and praise towards our Maker: if there is such a virtue as religion, and such a sin as blasphemy: surely a Professor of Morals must point, that out. He cannot in that case suppress all reference to God, for the same reason that he cannot help going into the duties of a man to his wife, or of an individual to the State, if marriage and civil government are natural institutions. If there is a God to be worshipped, any book on Moral Science is incomplete without a chapter on Religion. But the question remains, whether the name of God should enter into the other chapters, and His being and authority into the very foundations of the science. I do not mean the metaphysical foundations; for Metaphysics are like a two-edged sword, that cleaves down to the very marrow of things, and must therefore reveal and discover God. But Morality, like Mathematics, takes certain metaphysical foundations for granted, without enquiring into them. On these foundations we rear the walls, so to speak, of the science of Ethics without reference to God, but we cannot put the roof and crown upon the erection, unless we speak of Him and of His law. Moral distinctions, as we saw (c. vi., s. i. n. 7, p. 113), are antecedent to the Divine command to observe them: and though they rest ultimately on the Divine nature, that ultimate ground belongs to Metaphysics, not to Ethics. Ethics begin with human nature, pointing out that there are certain human acts that do become a man, and others that do not. (c. vi., s.i., p. 109.) To see this, it is not necessary to look up above man. Thus we shall prove lying, suicide, and murder to be wrong, and good fellowship a duty, without needing to mention the Divine Being, though by considering Him the proof gains in cogency. Or rather, apart from God we shall prove certain acts wrong, and other acts obligatory as duties, philosophically speaking, with an initial and fundamental wrongness and obligation. In the present section we have proved once for all, that what is wrong philosophically, or is philosophically a duty, is the same also theologically. Thus the initial and fundamental obligation is transformed into an obligation formal and complete. Therefore, hereafter we shall be content to have established the philosophical obligation, knowing that the theological side is invariably conjoined therewith. As St. Thomas says (1a 2ae, q. 71, art. 6, ad 5) -- "By theologians sin is considered principally as it is an offence against God: but by the moral philosopher, inasmuch as it is contrary to reason." But what is contrary to reason offends God, and is forbidden by Divine law, and thus becomes a sin. No God, no sin. Away from God, there is indecency and impropriety, unreasonableness, abomination, and brutality, all this in view of outraged humanity: there is likewise crime against the State: but the formal element of sin is wanting. With sin, of course, disappears also the punishment of sin as such. Thus to leave God wholly out of Ethics and Natural Law, is to rob moral evil of half its terrors, and of that very half which is more easily "understanded of the people." A consideration for schoolmanagers.

Readings. -- St. Thos., 1a, q. 22, art. 2, in corp. (against Lucretius, ii. 646-651); Suarez, Legibus, VI., nn. 3, 5-9, 13, 14, 17, 20-24.

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