Man is a subject of moral obligation.
That man has intellect and sensibility, or the powers of knowing and feeling, has not, to my knowledge, been doubted. In theory, the freedom of the will in man has been denied. Yet the very deniers, have, in their practical judgment, assumed the freedom of the human will, as well, and as fully as the most staunch defenders of human liberty of will. Indeed, nobody ever did or can, in practice, call in question the freedom of the human will, without justly incurring the charge of insanity. By a necessity of his nature, every moral agent knows himself to be free. He can no more hide this fact from himself, or reason himself out of the conviction of its truth, than he can speculate himself into a disbelief of his own existence. He may, in speculation, deny either, but in fact he knows both. That he is, that he is free, are truths equally well known, and known precisely in the same way, namely, he intuits them sees them in their own light, by virtue of the constitution of his own being. I have said that man is conscious of possessing the powers of a moral agent. He has also the idea of the valuable, of right and of wrong; of this he is conscious. But nothing else is necessary to constitute man or any other being a subject of moral obligation, and the possession of these powers, together with sufficient light on moral subjects to develop the ideas just mentioned.
Man, by a law of necessity, affirms himself to be under moral obligation. He cannot doubt it. He affirms absolutely and necessarily, that he is praiseworthy or blameworthy as he is benevolent or selfish. Every man assumes this of himself, and of all other men of sound mind. This assumption is irresistible, as well as universal.
The truth assumed then is not to be called in question. But if it be called in question in theory, it still remains, and must remain, while reason remains, a truth of certain knowledge, from the presence of which there is, and can be no escape. The spontaneous, universal, and irresistible affirmation than men of sound mind are praiseworthy or blameworthy, as they are selfish or benevolent, shows beyond contradiction, that all men regard themselves, and others, as the subjects of moral obligation.
Extent of moral obligation
By this is intended, to what acts and states of mind does moral obligation extend? This certainly is a solemn and a fundamentally important question. In the examination of this question, let us inquire first, to what acts and states of mind moral obligation cannot directly extend.
1. Not to external or muscular action. These actions are connected with the actions of the will, by a law of necessity. If I will to move my muscles, they must move, unless the nerves of voluntary motion are paralyzed, or some resistance is offered to muscular motion, that overpowers the strength of my will, or, if you please, of my muscles. It is generally understood and agreed that moral obligation does not directly extend to bodily or outward action.
2. Not to the states of the sensibility. I have already remarked that we are conscious, that our feelings are not voluntary, but involuntary states of mind. Moral obligation cannot, therefore, directly extend to them.
3. Not to states of the intellect. The phenomena of this faculty, we also know by consciousness, to be under the law of necessity. It is impossible that moral obligation should extend directly to any involuntary act or state of mind.
4. Not to unintelligent acts of will. There are many unintelligent volitions, or acts of will, to which moral obligation cannot extend, for example, the volitions of maniacs, or of infants, before the reason is at all developed. They must at birth, be the subjects of volition, as they have motion or muscular action. The volitions of somnambulists are also of this character. Purely instinctive volitions must also come under the category of unintelligent actions of will. For example: a bee lights on my hand, I instantly and instinctively shake him off. I tread on a hot iron, and instinctively move my foot. Indeed there are many actions of will which are put forth under the influence of pure instinct, and before the intellect and affirm obligation to will or not to will. These surely cannot have moral character, and of course moral obligation cannot extend to them.
We inquire in the second place, to what acts and states of mind moral obligation must directly extend.
1. To ultimate acts of will. These are and must be free. Intelligent acts of will, as has been before observed, are of three classes. First, the choice of some object for its own sake, i.e., because of its own nature, or for reasons found exclusively in itself, as, for example, the happiness of being. These are called ultimate choices, or intentions. Second, the choice of the conditions and means of securing the object of ultimate choice, or for example, holiness, as the conditions or means of happiness. Third, volitions, or executive efforts to secure the object of ultimate choice. Obligations must extend to these three classes of the actions of the will. In the most strict and proper sense it may be said, that obligation extends directly only to the ultimate intention.
The choice of an end necessitates the choice of the known conditions and means of securing this end. I am free to relinquish, at any moment, my choice of an end, but while I persevere in the choice, or ultimate intention, I am not free to refuse the known necessary conditions and means. If I reject the known conditions and means, I, in this act, relinquish the choice of the end. The desire of the end may remain, but the actual choice of it cannot, when the will knowingly rejects the known necessary conditions and means. In this case, the will prefers to let go the end, rather than to chose and use the necessary conditions and means. In the strictest sense the choice of known conditions and means, together with executive volitions, is implied in the ultimate intention or in the choice of an end.
When the good or valuable per se, is perceived by a moral agent, he instantly and necessarily, and without conditions, affirms his obligation to choose it. This affirmation is direct and universal, absolute, or without condition. Whether he will affirm himself to be under obligation to put forth efforts to secure the good, must depend upon his regarding such acts a necessary, possible, and useful. The obligation, therefore, to put forth ultimate choice, is in the strictest sense direct, absolute and universal.
Obligation to choose holiness, (as the holiness of God), as the means of happiness, is indirect in the sense that is conditionated, first, upon the obligation to choose happiness as a good per se, and, second, upon the knowledge that holiness is the necessary means of happiness.
Obligation to put forth executive volitions is also indirect in the sense that it is conditionated; first, upon obligation to choose an object as an end, and, second, upon the necessity, possibility and utility of such acts.
It should here be observed, that obligation to choose an object for its own sake, implies, of course, obligation to reject its opposite; and obligation to choose the conditions of an intrinsically valuable object for its own sake, implies obligation to reject the conditions or means of the opposite of this object. Also, obligation to use means to secure an intrinsically valuable object, implies obligation to use means, if necessary and possible, to prevent the opposite of this end. For example: Obligation to will happiness, for its intrinsic value, implies obligation to reject misery, as an intrinsic evil. Obligation to will the conditions of the happiness of being, implies obligation to reject the conditions of misery. Obligation to use means to promote the happiness of being, implies obligation to use means, if necessary and practicable, to prevent the misery of being.
Again, the choice of any object, either as an end, or a means, implies the refusal of its opposite. In other words, choice implies preference, refusing is properly only choice in an opposite direction. For this reason, in speaking of the actions of the will, it has been common to omit the mention of willing, or refusing, since such acts are properly included in the categories of choices and volitions. It should also be observed that choice, or willing, necessarily implies an object chosen, and that this object should be such that the mind can regard it as being either intrinsically, or relatively valuable, or important. As choice must consist in an act, an intelligent act, the mind must have reason for choice. It cannot choose without a reason, for this is the same as to choose without an object of choice. A mere abstraction without any perceived or assumed, intrinsic, or relative importance, to any being in existence, cannot be an object of choice, either ultimate or executive. The ultimate reason which the mind has for choosing is in fact the object of choice; and where there is no reason there is no object of choice.
2. I have said, that moral obligation respects in the strictest sense and directly the intention only. I am now prepared to say still further, that this is a first truth of reason. It is a truth universally and necessarily assumed by all moral agents, their speculations to the contrary, in any wise, not withstanding. This is evident from the following considerations:
(1.) Very young children know and assume this truth universally. They always deem it a sufficient vindication of themselves, when accused of any delinquency to say, "I did not mean to," or if accused of short coming, to say, "I meant or intended to have done it I designed it." This, if true, they assume to be an all-sufficient vindication of themselves. They know that this, if believed, must be regarded as a sufficient excuse to justify them in every case.
(2.) Every moral agent necessarily regards such an excuse as a perfect justification, in case it be sincerely and truly made.
(3.) It is a saying as common as men are, and as true as common, that men are to be judged by their motives, that is, by their designs, intentions. It is impossible for us not to assent to this truth. If a man intend evil, though, perchance, he may do us good, we do not excuse him, but hold him guilty of the crime which he intended. So if he intend to do us good, and, perchance, do us evil, we do not, and cannot condemn him. For this intention and endeavor to do us good, we cannot blame him, although it has resulted in evil to us. He may be to blame for other things connected with the affair. He may have come to our help too late, and have been to blame for not coming when a different result would have followed; or he may have been blamable for not being better qualified for doing us good. He may have been to blame for many things connected with the transaction, but for a sincere, and of course hearty endeavor to do us good, he is not culpable, nor can he be, however it may result. If he honestly intended to do us good, it is impossible that he should not have used the best means in his power, at the time. This is implied in honesty of intention. And if he did this, reason cannot pronounce him guilty, for it must judge him by his intentions.
(4.) Courts of criminal law have always in every enlightened country assumed this as a first truth. They always inquire into the quo animo, that is, the intention, and judge accordingly.
(5.) The universally acknowledged truth that lunatics are not moral agents and responsible for their conduct, is but an illustration of the fact that the truth we are considering is regarded, and assumed, as a first truth of reason.
(6.) The Bible everywhere either expressly or impliedly recognizes this truth. "If there be a willing mind," that is, a right willing or intention, "it is accepted, "etc (2 Cor. 8:12). Again, "All the law is fulfilled in one word, love" (Gal. 5:14). Now this cannot be true, if the spirit of the whole law does not directly respect intentions only. If it extends directly to thoughts, emotions, and outward actions, it cannot be truly said that love is the fulfilling of the law The love must be goodwill, for how could involuntary love be obligatory? The spirit of the Bible everywhere respects the intention. If the intention is right, or if there be a willing mind, it is accepted as obedience. But if there be not a willing mind, that is, right intention, no outward act is regarded as obedience. The willing is always regarded by the scriptures as the doing. "If a man look on a woman, to lust after her," that is, with licentious intention, or willing, "he hath committed adultery with her already" (Matt. 5:28), etc. So on the other hand, if one intends to perform a service for God, which, after all, he is unable to perform, he is regarded as having virtually done it, and is rewarded accordingly. This is too obviously the doctrine of the Bible to need further elucidation.
3. We have seen that the choice of an end implies, and, while the choice continues, necessitates the choice of the known conditions and means of the end, and also the putting forth of volition to secure the end. If this is true, it follows that the choice of the conditions and means of securing an end, and also the volitions put forth as executive efforts to secure it, must derive their character from the ultimate choice or intention, which gives them existence. This shows that moral obligation extends, primarily and directly, only to the ultimate intention or choice of an end, though really, but less directly, to the choice of the conditions and means, and also to executive volitions.
But I must distinguish more clearly between ultimate and proximate intentions, which discrimination will show, that in the most strict and proper sense, obligation belongs to the former, and only in a less strict and proper sense, to the latter.
An ultimate end, be it remembered, is an object chosen for its own sake.
A proximate end is an object chosen as a condition or means of securing an ultimate end.
An ultimate end is an object chosen because of its intrinsic nature and value.
A proximate end is an object chosen for the sake of the end, and upon condition of its relation as a condition or means of the end.
Example: A student labors to get wages, to purchase books, to obtain an education, to preach the gospel, to save souls, and to please God. Another labors to get wages, to purchase books, to get an education, to preach the gospel, to secure a salary, and his own ease and popularity. In the first supposition he loves God and souls, and seeks, as his ultimate end, the happiness of souls, and the glory and gratification of God. In the last case supposed, he loves himself supremely and his ultimate end is his own gratification. Now the proximate end, or immediate objects of pursuit, in these two cases, are precisely alike, while their ultimate ends are entirely opposite. Their first, or nearest, end is to get wages. Their next end, is to obtain books; and so we follow them, until we ascertain their ultimate end, before we learn the moral character of what they are doing. The means they are using, i.e., their immediate objects or proximate ends of pursuit, are the same, but the ultimate ends at which they aim are entirely different, and every moral agent, from a necessary law of his intellect, must, as soon as he understands the ultimate end of each, pronounce the one virtuous, and the other sinful, in his pursuits. One is selfish and the other benevolent. From this illustration it is plain, that strictly speaking, moral character, and, of course, moral obligation, respect directly the ultimate intention only. We shall see, in the proper place, that obligation also extends, but less directly, to the use of means to obtain the end.
Our next inquiry is, to what acts and mental states moral obligation indirectly extends.
1. The muscles of the body are, directly, under control of the will. I will to move, and my muscles must move, unless there be interposed some physical obstruction of sufficient magnitude to overcome the strength of my will.
2. The intellect is also directly under the control of the will. I am conscious that I can control and direct my attention as I please, and think upon one subject or another.
3. The sensibility, I am conscious, is only indirectly controlled by the will. Feeling can be produced only by directing the attention and thoughts to those subjects that excite feeling, by a law of necessity.
The way is now prepared to say:
1. That obligation extends indirectly to all intelligent acts of will, in the sense already explained.
2. That moral obligation extends indirectly, to outward or bodily actions. These are often required, in the word of God. The reason is, that, being connected with the actions of the will, by a law of necessity, if the will is right, the outward action must follow, except upon the contingencies just named; and therefore such actions may reasonably be required. But if the contingencies just named intervene, so that outward action does not follow the choice or intention, the Bible accepts the will for the deed, invariably. "If there be a willing mind, it is accepted according, . . . " (2 Cor. 8:12).
3. Moral obligation extends, but less directly, to the states of the sensibility, so that certain emotions or feelings are required as outward actions are, and for the same reason, namely, the states of the sensibility are connected with the actions of the will, by a law of necessity. But when the sensibility is exhausted, or when, for any reason, the right action of the will does not produce the required feelings, it is accepted upon the principle just named.
4. Moral obligation indirectly extends also to the states of the intellect; consequently the Bible, to a certain extent, and in a certain sense, holds men responsible for their thoughts and opinions. It everywhere assumes that if the heart be constantly right, the thoughts and opinions will correspond with the state of the heart, or will: "If any man will do His will, he shall know the doctrine whether it be of God" (John 7:17). "If thine eye be single thy whole body shall be full of light" (Luke 11:34). It is, however, manifest, that the word of God everywhere assumes that, strictly speaking, all virtue or vice belong to the heart or intention. Where this is right, all is regarded as right; and where this is wrong, all is regarded as wrong. It is upon this assumption that the doctrine of total depravity rests. It is undeniable that the vilest sinners do many things outwardly which the law of God requires. Now unless the intention decides the character of these acts, they must be regarded as really virtuous. But when the intention is found to be selfish, then it is ascertained that they are sinful notwithstanding their conformity to the letter of the law of God.
The fact is, that moral agents are so constituted that it is impossible for them not to judge themselves, and others, by their subjective motives or intentions. They cannot but assume it as a first truth, that a man's character is as his intention is, and consequently, that moral obligation respects, directly, intention only.
5. Moral obligation then indirectly extends to everything about us, over which the will has direct or indirect control. The moral law, while, strictly, it legislates over intention only, yet in fact, in a sense less direct, legislates over the whole being, inasmuch as all our powers are directly or indirectly connected with intention, by a law of necessity. Strictly speaking, however, moral character belongs alone to the intention. In strict propriety of speech, it cannot be said that either outward action, or any state of the intellect, or sensibility, has a moral element or quality belonging to it. Yet in common language, which is sufficiently accurate for most practical purposes, we speak of thought, feeling, and outward action as holy or unholy. By this, however, all men really mean, that the agent is holy or unholy, is praiseworthy or blameworthy in his exercises and actions, because they regard them as proceeding from the state or attitude of the will.