« AnteriorContinuar »
evidence of the finger of God, and of the disposition which directs it. But the example which strikes each man most strongly is the true example for him: and hardly two minds hit upon the same; which shows the abundance of such examples about us. We conclude, therefore, that God wills and wishes the happiness of his creatures. And this conclusion being once established, we are at liberty to go on with the rule built upon it, namely, “that the method of coming at the will of God concerning any action, by the light of nature, is to inquire into the tendency of that action to promote or diminish the general happiness.”
So then actions are to be estimated by their tendency”. Whatever is expedient is right. It is the utility of any moral rule alone, which constitutes the obligation of it. But to all this there seems a plain objection, viz. that many actions are useful, which no man in his senses will allow to be right. There are occasions in which the hand of the assassin would be very useful. The present possessor of some great estate employs his influence and fortune, to annoy, corrupt, or oppress all about him. His estate would devolve, by his death, to a successor of an opposite character. It is useful, therefore, to dispatch such a one as soon as possible out of the way; as the neighbourhood will exchange thereby a pernicious tyrant for a wise and generous benefactor. It might be useful to rob a miser, and give the money to the poor; as the money, no doubt, would produce more happiness by being laid out in food and clothing for half a dozen distressed families, than by continuing locked up in a miser's chest. It may be useful to get possession of a place, a piece of preferment, or of a seat in Parliament, by bribery or false swearing : as by means of them we may serve the public more effectually than in our private station. What then shall we say? Must we admit these actions to be right, which would be to justify assassination, plunder, and perjury; or must we give up our principle, that the criterion of right is utility? It is not necessary to do either. The true answer is this; that these actions, after all, are not useful, and for that reason, and that alone, are not right. To see this point perfectly, it must be observed, that the bad consequences of actions are twofold, particular and general. The particular bad consequences of an action is the mischief which that single action directly and immediately occasions. The general bad consequence is the violation of some necessary or useful general rule. Thus, the particular bad consequence of the assassination above described is the fright and pain which the deceased underwent; the loss he suffered of life, which is as valuable to a bad man as to a good one, or more so; the prejudice and affliction of which his death was the occasion, to his family, friends, and dependants. The general bad consequence is the violation of this necessary general rule, that no man be put to death for his crimes but by public authority. Although, therefore, such an action have no parti
* Actions in the abstract are right or wrong, according to their tendency; the agentis virtuous or vicious, according to his design. Thus, if the question be, Whether relieving common beggars be right or wrong? we inquire into the tendency of such a conduct to the public advantage or inconvenience. If the question be, Whether a man remarkable for this sort of bounty is to be esteemed virtuous for that reason? we inquire into his design, whether his liberality sprang from charity or o: ostentation? It is evident that our concern is with actions in the abstract.
cular bad consequences, or greater particular good consequences, yet it is not useful, by reason of the general consequence, which is of more importance, and which is evil. And the same of the other two instances, and of a million more which might be mentioned. But as this solution supposes that the moral government of the world must proceed by general rules, it remains that we show the necessity of this.
You cannot permit one action and forbid another without showing a difference between them. Consequently, the same sort of actions must be generally permitted or generally forbidden. Where, therefore, the general permission of them would be pernicious, it becomes necessary to lay down and support the rule which generally forbids them.
Thus, to return once more to the case of the assassin. The assassin knocked the rich villain on the head, because he thought him better out of the way than in it. If you allow this excuse in the present instance, you must allow it to all who act in the same manner and from the same motive; that is, you must allow every man to kill any one he meets whom he thinks noxious or useless; which, in the event, would be to commit every man's life and safety to the spleen, fury, and fanaticism of his neighbour;-a disposition of affairs which would soon fill the world with misery, and confusion; and ere long put an end to human society, if not to the human species.
The necessity of general rules in human government is apparent: but whether the same necessity subsist in the Divine economy, in that distribution of rewards and punishments to which a moralist looks forward, may be doubted.
I answer, that general rules are necessary to every moral government: and by moral government I mean any dispensation whose object is to influence the conduct of reasonable creatures.
For if, of two actions perfectly similar, one be punished, and the other be rewarded or forgiven, which is the consequence of rejecting general rules, the subjects of such a dispensation would no longer know either what to expect or how to act. Rewards and punishments would cease to be such—would become accidents. Like the stroke of a thunderbolt, or the discovery of a mine, like a blank or a benefit ticket in a lottery, they would occasion pain or pleasure when they happened; but, following in no known order, from any particular course of action, they could have no previous influence or effect upon the conduct.
An attention to general rules, therefore, is included in the very idea of reward and punishment. Consequently, whatever reason there is to expect future reward and punishment at the hand of God, there is the same reason to believe that he will proceed in the distribution of it by general rules.
Before we prosecute the consideration of general consequences any further, it may be proper to anticipate a reflection, which will be apt enough to suggest itself in the progress of our argument.
As the general consequence of an action, upon which so much of the guilt of a bad action depends, consists in the evample; it should seem that if the action be done with perfect seerecy, so as to furnish no bad example, that part of the guilt drops off. In the case of suicide, for instance, if a man can so manage matters, as to take away his own life without being known or suspected to have done so, he is not chargeable with any mischief from the example; nor does his punishment seem necessary, in order to save the authority of any general rule.
In the first place, those who reason in this manner do not observe that they are setting up a general rule, of all others the least to be endured; namely, that secrecy, whenever secrecy is practicable, will justify any action. Were such a rule admitted, for instance in the case above produced; is there not reason to fear that people would be disappearing perpetually? In the next place, I would wish them to be well satisfied about the points proposed in the following queries: 1. Whether the Scriptures do not teach us to expect that, at the general judgment of the world, the most secret actions will be brought to light* * 2. For what purpose can this be, but to make them the objects of reward and punishment? 3. Whether, being so brought to light, they will not fall under the operation of those equal and impartial rules, by which God will deal with his creatures? They will then become examples, whatever they be now ; and require the same treatment from the judge and governor of the moral world, as if they had been detected from the first.
THE CONSIDERATION OF GENERAL CONSEQUENCES PURSUED.
THE general consequence of any action may be estimated, by asking what would be the consequence, if the same sort of actions were generally permitted.— But suppose they were, and a thousand such actions perpetrated under this permission; is it just to charge a single action with the collected guilt and mischief of the whole thousand! I answer, that the reason for
* “In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” Rom. xi. 16–"Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the heart.” I Cor. iv. 5.