The GOSPEL TRUTH
FOUNDATION OF MORAL OBLIGATION
PRACTICAL BEARINGS OF THE DIFFERENT THEORIES
It has already been observed that this is a highly practical question, and one of surpassing interest and importance, and I have gone through the discussion and examination of the several principal theories for the purpose of preparing the way to expose the practical results of those various theories, and show that they legitimately result in some of the most soul-destroying errors that cripple the church and curse the world. I have slightly touched already upon this subject, but so slightly, however, as to forbid its being left until we have looked more steadfastly, and thoroughly into it.
I. I will begin with the theory that regards the sovereign will of God as the foundation of moral obligation.
One legitimate and necessary result of this theory, is a totally erroneous conception both of the character of God and of the nature and design of His government. If God's will is the foundation of moral obligation, it follows that He is an arbitrary sovereign. He is not under law himself, and He has no rule by which to regulate His conduct, nor by which either Himself or any other being can judge of His moral character. Indeed unless He is under law, or is a subject of moral obligation, he has and can have no moral character; for moral character always and necessarily implies moral law and moral obligation. If God's will is not itself under the law of His infinite reason, or in other words, if it is not conformed to the law imposed upon it by His intelligence, then His will is and must be arbitrary in the worst sense, that is, in the sense of having no regard to reason, or to the nature and relations of moral agents. But if His will is under the law of His reason, if he acts from principle, or has good and benevolent reasons for his conduct, then His will is not the foundation of moral obligation, but those reasons that lie revealed in the Divine intelligence, in view of which it affirms moral obligation, or that He ought to will in conformity with those reasons. In other words, if the intrinsic value of His own well-being and that of the universe be the foundation of moral obligation; if His reason affirms His obligation to choose this as an ultimate end, and to consecrate His infinite energies to the realization of it; and if His will is conformed to this law, it follows,
(1.) That His will is not the foundation of moral obligation.
(2.) That He has infinitely good and wise reasons for what He wills, says, and does.
(3.) That He is not arbitrary, but always acts in conformity with principles and for reasons that will, when universally known, compel the respect and even admiration of every intelligent being in the universe.
(4.) That He has a moral character, and is infinitely virtuous.
(5.) That he must respect himself.
(6.) That he must possess a happiness intelligent in kind, and infinite in degree.
(7.) That creation, providential, and moral government, are the necessary means of an infinitely wise and good end, and that the evils that exist are only unavoidably incidental to this infinitely wise and benevolent arrangement, and although great, are indefinitely the less of two evils. That is, they are an evil indefinitely less than no creation and no government would have been, or than a different arrangement and government would have been. It is conceivable that a plan of administration might have been adopted that would have prevented the present evils, but if we admit that God has been governed by reason in the selection of the end he has in view, and in the use of means to accomplish it, it will follow that the evils are less than would have existed under any other plan of administration, or at least, that the present system, with all its evils, is the best that infinite wisdom and love could adopt.
(8.) These incidental evils, therefore, do not at all detract from the evidence of the wisdom and goodness of God, for in all these things He is not acting from caprice, or malice, or an arbitrary sovereignty, but is acting in conformity with the law of His infinite intelligence, and of course has infinitely good and weighty reasons for what He does and suffers to be done--so good and so weighty reasons that He could not do otherwise without violating the law of His own intelligence and therefore committing infinite sin.
(9.) It follows also that there is ground for perfect confidence, love, and submission to His Divine will in all things. That is: If His will is not arbitrary, but conformed to the law of His infinite intelligence, then it is obligatory as our rule of action, because it reveals infallibly what is in accordance with infinite intelligence. We may be entirely safe always in obeying all the Divine requirements, and submitting to all his dispensations, however mysterious, being assured that they are perfectly wise and good. Not only are we safe in doing so, but we are under infinite obligation to do so, not because His arbitrary will imposes obligation, but because it reveals to us infallibly the end we ought to choose and the indispensable means of securing it. His will is law, not in the sense of its originating and imposing obligation of its own arbitrary sovereignty, but in the sense of its being a revelation of both the end we ought to seek and the means by which the end can be secured. Indeed this is the only proper idea of law. It does not in any case of itself impose obligation, but is only a revelation of obligation. Law is a condition, but not the foundation of obligation. The will of God is a condition of obligation only so far forth as it is indispensable to our knowledge of the end we ought to seek, and the means by which this end is to be secured. Where these are known, there is obligation whether God has revealed His will or not.
The foregoing and many other important truths, little less important than those already mentioned, and too numerous to be now distinctly noticed, follow from the fact that the good of being and not the arbitrary will of God, is the foundation of moral obligation. But no one of them is or can be true if His will is the foundation of obligation. Nor can any one who consistently holds or believes that His will is the foundation of obligation, hold or believe any of the foregoing truths, nor indeed hold and believe any truth of the law or gospel. Nay, he cannot, if he be at all consistent, have even a correct conception of one truth of God's moral government. Now let us see if he can.
(1.) Can he believe that God's will is wise and good unless he admits and believes that it is subject to the law of His intelligence. Certainly he can not, and to affirm that he can is a palpable contradiction. But if he admits that the Divine will is governed by the law of the Divine intelligence this is denying that His will is the foundation of moral obligation. If he consistently holds that the Divine will is the foundation of moral obligation, he must either deny that His will is any evidence of what is wise and good, or maintain the absurdity that whatever God wills is wise and good, simply for the reason that God wills it, that if he willed the directly opposite of what he does, it would be equally wise and good. But this is an absurdity the swallowing of which would choke a moral agent to death.
(2.) If he consistently holds and believes that God's sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation, he can not regard Him as having any moral character, for the reason that there is no standard by which to judge of His willing and acting; for, by the supposition, he has no intelligent rule of action, and therefore can have no moral character as he is not a moral agent, and can himself have no idea of the moral character of his own actions, for in fact, upon the supposition in question, they have none. Any one, therefore, who holds that God is not a subject of moral law, imposed on Him by His own reason, but on the contrary that His sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation, must, if consistent, deny that He has moral character; and he must deny that God is an intelligent being, or admit that He is infinitely wicked for not conforming His will to the law of His intelligence, and for not being guided by His infinite reason instead of setting up an arbitrary sovereignty of will.
(3.) He who holds that God's sovereign will is the foundation of moral obligation instead of a revelation of obligation, if he be at all consistent, can neither assign nor have any good reason either for confidence in Him or submission to Him. If He has no good and wise reasons for what he commands, why should we obey Him? If He has no good and wise reasons for what He does, who should we submit to Him?
Will it be answered that if we refuse, we do it at our peril, and therefore it is wise to do so even if He has no good reasons for what He does and requires? To this I answer that it is impossible upon the supposition in question either to obey or submit to God with the heart. If we can see no good reasons, but on the other hand, are assured there are no good and wise reasons for the Divine commands and conduct, it is forever naturally impossible from the laws of our nature to render any thing more than feigned obedience and submission. Whenever we do not understand the reason for a Divine requirement, or of a dispensation of Divine providence, the condition of heart obedience to the one and submission to the other, is the assumption that He has good and wise reasons for both. But assume the contrary, to wit, that He has no good and wise reasons for either, and you render heart obedience, confidence, and submission impossible. It is perfectly plain, therefore, that he who consistently holds the theory in question, can neither conceive rightly of God nor of any thing respecting His law, gospel, or government, moral or providential. It is impossible for Him to have an intelligent piety. His religion, if he has any, must be sheer superstition, in as much as he neither knows the true God, nor the true reason why he should love Him, believe, obey, or submit to Him. In short, he neither knows, nor, if consistent, can know any thing of the nature of true religion, and has not so much as a right conception of what constitutes virtue.
But do not understand me as affirming that none who profess to hold the theory in question have any true knowledge of God or any true religion. No, they are happily so purely theorists on this subject, and so happily inconsistent with themselves, as to have, after all, a practical judgment in favor of the truth. They do not see the logical consequences of their theory and of course do not embrace them, and this happy inconsistency is an indispensable condition of their salvation. There is no end to the absurdities to which this theory legitimately conducts us, as might be abundantly shown. But enough has been said, I trust, to put you on your guard that you do not entertain fundamentally false notions of God and of His government, and consequently of what constitutes true love, faith, obedience, and submission to Him.
(4.) Another pernicious consequence of this theory is, that those who hold it will of course give false directions to inquiring sinners. Indeed, if ministers, the whole strain of their instructions must be false. They must, if consistent, not only represent God to their hearers as an absolute and arbitrary sovereign, but they must represent religion as consisting in submission to this arbitrary sovereignty. If sinners inquire what they must do to be saved, they must answer in substance that they must cast themselves on the sovereignty of a God whose law is solely an expression of his arbitrary will, and whose every requirement and purpose is founded in his arbitrary sovereignty. This is the God whom they must love, in whom they must believe, and whom they must serve with a willing mind. How infinitely different such instructions are from those that would be given by one who knew the truth. Such an one would represent God to an inquirer as infinitely reasonable in all his requirements, in all his ways. He would represent the sovereignty of God as consisting, not in arbitrary will, but in benevolence or love directed by infinite knowledge in the promotion of the highest good of being. He would represent his law, not as the expression of his arbitrary will, but as having its foundation in the self-existent nature of God and in the nature of moral agents, as being the very rule which is agreeable to the nature and relations of moral agents; that its requisitions are not arbitrary, but that the very thing and only that is required which is in the nature of things indispensable to the highest well-being of moral agents; that God's will does not originate obligation by any arbitrary fiat, but on the contrary that he requires what he does because it is obligatory in the nature of things; that his requirement does not create right, but that he requires only that which is naturally and of necessity right. These and many such like things would irresistibly commend the character of God to the human intelligence as a being worthy to be trusted, and as one to whom submission is infinitely safe and reasonable.
But let the advocates of the theory under consideration but consistently press this theory upon the human intelligence, and the more they do so the less reason can it perceive either for submitting to, or for trusting in God. The fact is, the idea of arbitrary sovereignty is shocking and revolting not only to the human heart, whether unregenerate or regenerate, but also to the human intelligence. Religion, based upon such a view of God's character and government, must be sheer superstition or gross fanaticism.
II. I will next glance at the legitimate results of the theory of the Selfish School.
This theory, as you recollect, teaches that our own interest is the foundation of moral obligation. In conversing with a distinguished defender of this philosophy, I requested the theorist to define moral obligation, and this was the definition given, to wit: "It is the obligation of a moral agent to seek his own happiness." Upon the practical tendency of this theory I remark,
1. It tends directly and inevitably to the confirmation and despotism of sin in the soul. All sin, as we shall abundantly see, resolves itself into a spirit of self-seeking, or into a disposition to seek good to self, and upon condition of its relations to self, and not impartially or disinterestedly. This philosophy represents this spirit of self-seeking as virtue, and only requires that in our efforts to secure our own happiness we should not interfere with the rights of others in also seeking theirs. But here it may be asked, when these philosophers insist that virtue consists in willing our own happiness, and that in seeking it we are bound to have respect to the right and happiness of others, do they mean that we are to have a positive or merely a negative regard to the rights and happiness of others? If they mean that we are to have a positive regard to others' rights and happiness, what is that but giving up their theory and holding the true one, to wit, that the happiness of each one shall be esteemed according to its intrinsic value, for its own sake? That is, that we should be disinterestedly benevolent? But if they mean that we are to regard our neighbor's happiness negatively, that is, merely in such a sense as not to hinder it, what is this but the most absurd thing conceivable? What! I need not care positively for my neighbor's happiness, I need not will it as a good in itself, and for its own value, and yet I must take care not be hinder it. But why? Why, because it is intrinsically as valuable as my own. Now if this is assigning any good reason why I ought not to hinder it, it is just because it is assigning a good reason why I ought positively and disinterestedly to will it; which is the true theory. But if this is not a sufficient reason to impose obligation, positively and disinterestedly to will it, it can never impose obligation to avoid hindering it, and I may pursue my own happiness in my own way without regard to that of any other.
2. If this theory be true, sinful and holy beings are precisely alike, so far as ultimate intention is concerned, in which we have seen all moral character consists. They have precisely the same end in view, and the difference lies only in the means they make use of to promote their own happiness. That sinners are seeking their own happiness, is a truth of universal consciousness. If moral agents are under obligation to seek their own happiness as the supreme end of life, it follows that holy beings do so. So that holy and sinful beings are precisely alike so far as the end for which they live is concerned, the only difference being, as has been observed, in the different means they make use of to promote this end. But observe, no reason can be assigned, in accordance with this philosophy, why they use different means only that they differ in judgment in respect to them, for let it be remembered that this philosophy denies that we are bound to have a positive and disinterested regard to our neighbor's interest, and of course no benevolent considerations prevent the holy from using the same means as do the wicked. Where, therefore, is the difference in their character, although they do use this diversity of means? I say again, there is none. If this difference be not to be ascribed to disinterested benevolence in one and to selfishness in the other, there really is and can be no difference in character between them. According to this theory nothing is right or wrong in itself but the intention to promote my own happiness, and any thing is right or wrong as it is intended to promote this result or otherwise. For let it be borne in mind that if moral obligation respects strictly the ultimate intention only, it follows that ultimate intention alone is right or wrong in itself, and all other things are right or wrong as they proceed from a right or wrong ultimate intention. This must be true. Also, if my own happiness be the foundation of my moral obligation, it follows that this is the ultimate end at which I ought to aim, and that nothing is right or wrong in itself, in me, but this intention or its opposite, and furthermore that every thing else must be right or wrong in me as it proceeds from this or from an opposite intention. I may do, and upon the supposition of the truth of this theory, I am bound to do whatever will, in my estimation, promote my own happiness, and that, not because of its intrinsic value as a part of universal good, but because it is my own. To seek it as a part of universal happiness, and not because it is my own, would be to act on the true theory, or the theory of disinterested benevolence; which this theory denies.
3. Upon this theory I am not to love God supremely, and my neighbor as myself. If I love God and my neighbor, it is to be only as a means of promoting my own happiness, which is not loving Him but loving myself supremely.
4. This theory teaches radical error in respect both to the character and government of God; and the consistent defender of it can not but hold fundamentally false views in respect to what constitutes holiness or virtue either in God or man. They do not and can not know the difference between virtue and vice. In short, it is impossible that all their views of religion should not be radically false and absurd.
5. The teachers of this theory must fatally mislead all who consistently follow out their instructions. In preaching they must, if consistent, appeal wholly to hope and fear, instead of addressing the heart through the intelligence. All their instructions must tend to confirm selfishness. All the motives they present, if consistent, tend only to stir up a zeal within them to secure their own happiness. If they pray, it will only be to implore the help of God to accomplish their selfish ends.
Indeed it is impossible that this theory should not blind its advocates to the fundamental truths of morality and religion, and it is hardly conceivable that one could more efficiently serve the devil than by the inculcation of such a philosophy as this.
III. Let us in the next place look into the natural, and if its advocates are consistent, necessary results of Utilitarianism.
This theory, you know, teaches that the utility of an action or of a choice, renders it obligatory. That is, I am bound to will good, not for the intrinsic value of the good; but because willing good tends to produce good--to choose an end, not because of the intrinsic value of the end, but because the willing of it tends to secure it. The absurdity of this theory has been sufficiently exposed. It only remains to notice its legitimate practical results.
1. It naturally, and, I may say, necessarily diverts the attention from that in which all morality consists, namely the ultimate intention. Indeed it seems that the abettors of this scheme must have in mind only outward action, or at most executive volitions, when they assert that the tendency of an action, is the reason of the obligation to put it forth. It seems impossible that they should assert that the reason for choosing an ultimate end should or could be the tendency of choice to secure it. This is so palpable a contradiction that it is difficult to believe that they have ultimate intention in mind when they make the assertion. An ultimate end is ever chosen for its intrinsic value, and not because choice tends to secure it. How, then, is it possible for them to hold that the tendency of choice to secure an ultimate end is the reason of an obligation to make that choice? But if they have not their eye upon ultimate intention when they speak of moral obligation, they are discoursing of that which is strictly without the pale of morality. I said in a former lecture, that the obligation to put forth volitions or outward actions to secure an ultimate end must be conditionated upon the perceived tendency of such volitions and actions to secure that end, but while this tendency is the condition of the obligation to executive volition, or outward action, the obligation is founded in the intrinsic value of the end to secure which such volitions tend. So that utilitarianism gives a radically false account of the reason of moral obligation. A consistent utilitarian therefore can not conceive rightly of the nature of morality or virtue. He can not consistently hold that virtue consists in willing the highest well-being of God and of the universe as an ultimate end or for its own sake, but must, on the contrary, confine his ideas of moral obligation to volitions and outward actions in which there is strictly no morality, and withal assign an entirely false reason for these, to wit their tendency to secure an end rather than the value of the end which they tend to secure.
This is the proper place to speak of the doctrine of expediency, a doctrine strenuously maintained by utilitarians and as strenuously opposed by rightarians. It is this, that whatever is expedient is right for that reason, that is, that the expediency of an action or measure is the foundation of the obligation to put forth that action or adopt that measure. It is easy to see that this is just equivalent to saying that the utility of an action or measure is the reason of the obligation to put forth that action or adopt that measure. But, as we have seen, utility, tendency, expediency, is only a condition of the obligation (in the sense in which obligation can be affirmed of any thing but ultimate intention,) to put forth outward action or executive volition, never the foundation of the obligation, that always being the intrinsic value of the end to which the volition, action or measure sustains the relation of a means. I do not wonder that rightarians object to this, although I do wonder at the reason which, if consistent, they must assign for this obligation, to wit, that any action or volition, (ultimate intention expected,) can be right or wrong in itself irrespective of its expediency or utility. This is absurd enough and flatly contradicts the doctrine of rightarians themselves, that moral obligation strictly belongs only to ultimate intention. If moral obligation belongs only to ultimate intention, then nothing but ultimate intention can be right or wrong in itself. And every thing else, that is, all executive volitions and outward actions must be right or wrong, (in the only sense in which moral character can be predicated of them,) as they proceed from a right or wrong ultimate intention. This is the only form in which rightarians can consistently admit the doctrine of expediency, that is, that it relates exclusively to executive volitions and outward actions. And this they can admit only upon the assumption that executive volitions and outward actions have strictly no moral character in themselves but are right or wrong only as and because they proceed necessarily from a right or wrong ultimate intention. All schools that hold this doctrine, to wit, that moral obligation respects the ultimate intention only, must if consistent, deny that any thing can be either right or wrong per se but ultimate intention. Further they must maintain that utility, expediency, or tendency to promote the ultimate end upon which ultimate intention terminates, is always a condition of the obligation to put forth those volitions and actions that sustain to this end the relation of a means. And still further, they must maintain that the obligation to use those means must be founded in the value of the end and not in the tendency of the means to secure it, for unless the end be intrinsically valuable, the tendency of means to secure it can impose no obligation to use them. Tendency, utility, expediency, then, I say again, is only the condition of the obligation to use any given means but never the foundation of obligation. An action or executive volition is not obligatory, as utilitarians say, because and for the reason that it is useful or expedient, but merely upon condition that it is so. The obligation in respect to outward action is always founded in the value of the end to which this action sustains the relation of a means, and the obligation is conditionated upon the perceived tendency of the means to secure that end. Expediency can never have respect to the choice of an ultimate end, or to that in which moral character consists, to wit, ultimate intention. The end is to be chosen for its own sake. Ultimate intention is right or wrong in itself, and no questions of utility, expediency or tendency have any thing to do with the obligation to put forth ultimate intention, there being only one reason for this, namely, the intrinsic value of the end to be intended. It is true then that whatever is expedient is right, not for that reason, but only upon that condition. The inquiry then, Is it expedient? in respect to outward action, is always proper; for upon this condition does obligation to outward action turn. But in respect to ultimate intention or the choice of an ultimate end, an inquiry into the expediency of this choice or intention is never proper, the obligation being founded alone upon the perceived and intrinsic value of the end, and the obligation being without any condition whatever, except the possession of the powers of moral agency, with the perception of the end upon which intention ought to terminate, namely, the good of universal being. But the mistake of the utilitarian is fundamental, that expediency is the foundation of moral obligation, for in fact it cannot be so in any case whatever. I have said, and here repeat, that all schools that hold that moral obligation respects ultimate intention only, must, if consistent, maintain that perceived utility, expediency, &c., is a condition of obligation to put forth any outward action, or which is the same thing, to use any means to secure the end of benevolence. Therefore, in practice or in daily life the true doctrine of expediency must of necessity have a place. The railers against expediency, therefore, know not what they say nor whereof they affirm. It is, however, impossible to practice upon the utilitarian philosophy. This teaches that the tendency of an action to secure good instead of the intrinsic value of the good is the foundation of the obligation to put forth that action. But this is too absurd for practice. For unless the intrinsic value of the end be assumed as the foundation of the obligation to choose it, it is impossible to affirm obligation to put forth an action to secure that end. The folly and the danger of utilitarianism is, that it overlooks the true foundation of moral obligation, and consequently the true nature of virtue or holiness. A consistent utilitarian can not conceive rightly of either.
The teachings of a consistent utilitarian must of necessity abound with pernicious error. Instead of representing virtue as consisting in disinterested benevolence or in the consecration of the soul to the highest good of being in general for its own sake, it must represent it as consisting wholly in using means to promote good. That is, as consisting wholly in executive volitions and outward actions, which, strictly speaking, have no moral character in them. Thus consistent utilitarianism inculcates fundamentally false ideas of the nature of virtue. Of course it must teach equally erroneous ideas respecting the character of God--the spirit and meaning of His law--the nature of repentance--of sin--of regeneration--and in short of every practical doctrine of the Bible.
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