Page images




Of Moral Feeling, the source of Truth.

It has been laid down in this Essay as a position of some importance, that there is a power or faculty, viz. the Conscience or Moral Principle, (by whatever name it may be distinguished) and that it is the root and ground-work of virtue. It has been also admitted, that moral sentiments do not appear as early as some other principles in children; and are liable to be perverted by custom, and changed by education.

From these admitted facts, however, some have contended that there is no moral sense, nor other guide and rule of conduct, than the imperfect instruction of Reason, by, what is called, the light of nature, on the one hand, and the clear discovery made by

Scripture on the other: Hence, according to this view, Reason is the only guide to those who have no access to Scripture. But it was also held by Locke, that man received his knowledge of right and wrong by observation, or from without; at least that he had no certain criterion in his own breast distinct from Reason, to inform him of these distinctions; and a still stronger point was even urged, that scarce a virtue could be named, (excepting those which are necessary bonds to society) but, in some parts of the world, entire communities were agreed in setting it aside, and dispensing with its obligation, as it were, by universal consent; and, conversely, scarce a vice, which in some place or other, did not rise into the dignity of a virtue: for, one position seems to be a natural consequence of the other. So unprovided, it was to be inferred, was man with any moral instructor in his own breast; and so mutable were all moral distinctions; therefore, so little depending upon any original feelings of the mind; and so much depending either upon the outward proof that virtue was in itself profitable, and vice the contrary, (which is a deduction of Reason); or on the persuasion, derived from Scripture, that it was the Will of God, and consequently a rule of conduct. It is obvious, that FEELING, or an internal source of moral emotion, is entirely excluded from such a system.

Some reasons have been already assigned in opposition to this argument; and it has been urged that when the genuine features of moral conduct, in other

words, the various actions arising from Gratitude, Integrity, Justice, Fortitude, Benevolence, and their opposites (which we suppose must enter into the vocabulary of all languages) are fairly brought before the uncorrupted and unprejudiced view of the mindthey are discerned as clearly to be virtuous or vicious, praiseworthy or blameable, and right or wrong, by >an internal sense or moral tribunal; as sounds are discovered by the unobstructed ear to be harmonious or discordant, or as objects of sight are seen to be beautiful or otherwise by a sound eye-without mote or film-when looking through a clear medium with a steady light.

For, as many things are necessary, in the natural state, to perfect outward vision, and in fact to clear perception, by any one of the outward Senses; so many things are necessary, in the moral state, to a correct moral judgment.

But, as we do not consult Reason to know whether an object is beautiful, or a flower is fragrant, or a fruit is sweet; so neither do we use it in feeling the first emotions excited by the moral qualities of human actions. By the constitution of our minds we are compelled to feel certain emotions in perceiving these actions; for which we can give no other explanation than this, that it is a law imposed upon our nature. That we may pervert this original law, is very true; and that we may reason and rebel against these feelings so as to reduce, change, corrupt, stifle, and almost annihilate, until we scarcely know what they

were originally, is also certain. But their universality proves their common origin; and that they belong as much to human nature, as taste or smell; which are liable to be corrupted as well as the primary emotions in question. These emotions strike us at once without a long previous inquiry; and we pronounce judgment at once; though an investigation of Reason may sometimes be necessary in order to show that the moral actions we contemplate, are in reality such as they appear to us. If they are not, our moral judgments may be qualified, and heightened, or softened, according to the intention or demerit of the agent. For a man may inadvertently do an act of apparent inhumanity, when in the pursuit of a benevolent purpose. And the moral feeling may in itself be correct, which condemns him upon that presumption. But, though it be a correct decision, according to the knowledge of the case, it may not be correct absolutely, if it gives judgment upon insufficient data. Hence, the knowledge of the case, in other words, of the real intentions of our fellow-creatures, being often imperfect, from our own short-sighted vision, we are instructed not to condemn too hastily; and from this view, a door is opened for the extension of much mutual charity. We may therefore vary our moral sentiments of the case, according to our more perfect knowledge of the circumstances, without any variation in the rule or standard itself. Here it is that reason assists the moral perception, with regard to the actions of others; but with regard to our own,

we are too often blinded by self-delusion, and make Reason a party strongly in our favour, against the remonstrance of Conscience, or moral principle.

Now, as it is not by man or any of his institutions that the eye is formed to see, and the ear to hear, and the tongue to taste; so it is not by man or his institutions, that the heart is formed to feel moral approbation and disapprobation. And as the qualities of sensible objects have an original congruity or incongruity to the fabric (what if I say the taste) of the several organs, antecedent to their use and inherent in their very structure, so as to affect these senses with agreeable or disagreeable sensations: so the moral qualities of actions, whether our own or of others, convey to the unsophisticated heart of man certain emotions which constitute the primary source of our ideas concerning vice and virtue.

And it is upon this foundation, (excluding the light of Scripture on this point from our reasonings) whether the mind be warped by prejudice, or blinded by passion, whether truth be obscurely or clearly seen, whether it be unfolded by distinct propositions or not, whether man attends to the cultivation of his hidden treasure or neglects it ;-upon the foundation of truth itself, (the seeds of which are laid in his soul to withstand the corruptions springing from his na-ture) that we are taught to believe morality and religion can alone be built; and from the general survey of the human race we have every reason to think, that in his very lowest estate, man is not left

« PreviousContinue »