A brief reference has been made to those susceptibilities which are the
subject of this chapter. These, from their importance, are entitled to a
more enlarged consideration.
Before proceeding, however, it is desirable to refer to the uses of the
term _moral_, inasmuch as it often is employed with a vague
comprehension of its signification. In its widest sense it signifies
_whatever relates to the regulation of mind by motives_ in distinction
from those influences that produce involuntary results.
In a more limited sense, it signifies _whatever relates to the
regulation of mind in reference to the rules of right and wrong_.
In the preceding pages it has been assumed that the grand object for
which the Creator formed mind and all things is to produce _the greatest
possible happiness with the least possible evil_, and that this design
is so impressed on the human mind that the needless destruction of
happiness is felt to be _wrong_–that is, contrary or unfitted to the
design of all things; while all that tends to promote happiness is felt
to be right, or consistent with this plan.
In order to a more clear view of this part of the subject, it is
important to inquire as to the manner in which the ideas of _right_ and
_wrong_ seem to originate.
The young child first notices that certain actions of its own are
regarded with smiles and tones of love and approval, while other acts
occasion frowns and tones of displeasure.
Next, it perceives that whatever gives pleasure to itself and to others
is called _good_ and _right_, while whatever causes unpleasant feelings
is called _bad_ and _wrong_. Moreover, it notices that there is a right
and wrong way to hold its spoon, to use its playthings, to put on its
clothes, and to do multitudes of other things. It thus perceives, more
and more, that there is some _rule_ to regulate the use and action of
all things, both animate and inanimate, and that such rules always have
reference to some plan or design.
As its faculties develop and its observation enlarges, the general
impression is secured that _all_ plans and contrivances of men are
designed to promote enjoyment or to prevent discomfort, and are called
good and right just so far as this is done. At the same time, all that
tend to discomfort or pain are called bad and wrong.
In all the works of nature around, too, every thing that promotes
enjoyment is called good and right, and the opposite is called evil and
At last there is a resulting feeling that the great design of all things
is to secure good and prevent evil, and that whatever is opposed to this
is wrong, and unfitted to the object for which all things exist. The
question whether this impression is owing solely to observation or
partly to mental constitution is waived as of little practical
But, in the experience of infancy and childhood, the _law of sacrifice_
is speedily developed. It is perceived that much of the good to be
gained, if sought to excess, occasions pain, so that there must be a
certain amount of self-denial practiced, which, to the young novice,
sometimes involves disappointment and discomfort. It is also seen that
frequently two or more enjoyments are offered which are incompatible, so
that one must be relinquished to gain the other. It is perceived, also,
that there is a constant calculation going on as to which will be the
_best_–that is, which will secure _the most good with the least evil_.
And the child is constantly instructed that it must avoid excess, and
must give up what is of less value to secure the greater good. All this
training involves _sacrifices_ which are more or less painful, so that a
young child will sometimes cry as it voluntarily gives up one kind of
pleasure as the only mode of securing what is preferred.
It is perceived, also, that there is a constant _balancing_ of good and
evil, so that a given amount of enjoyment cancels or repays for a
certain amount of evil. When a great amount of enjoyment is purchased by
a small degree of labor or trouble, the _compound result_ is deemed a
good, and called right; on the contrary, when the evil involved exceeds
a given amount in comparison to the good, the compound result is called
evil and wrong.
Thus is generated the impression that there is a law of sacrifice
instituted requiring the greatest possible good with the least possible
evil, and that this is the great design of all things.
The impression is, not merely that we are to seek enjoyment and avoid
pain, but that we are to seek the _greatest possible_ good with the
_least possible_ evil, and that in doing this we are to obey the law of
sacrifice and suffering, by which the greatest possible good _is to be
bought_ by a certain amount of evil _voluntarily_ assumed.
In regard to this great law of sacrifice, the highest part of it is
discerned in the earliest experiences of life. The young child very soon
perceives that its mother and its other friends are constantly making
sacrifices for its own good, and bearing inconveniences and trouble for
the good of those around. And those who perform such acts of benevolent
self-sacrifice are praised, and their conduct is called good and right.
_Voluntary suffering to promote the welfare of others_ is discerned to
be the highest kind of good and right conduct in the estimation of all.
The first feature, then, in our moral nature is that _impression of the
great design of our Creator_ which furnishes us the means of deciding on
the rectitude of all voluntary action.
The second feature of our moral constitution is what is ordinarily
called the _sense of justice_. It is that susceptibility which is
excited at the view of the conduct of others as _voluntary_ causes of
good or evil.
In all cases where free agents act to promote happiness, an emotion of
approval arises, together with a desire of reward to the author of the
good. On the contrary, when there is a voluntary destruction of
happiness, there is an emotion of disapproval and a desire for
retributive pain on the author of the wrong.
These emotions are instinctive, and not at all regulated by reason in
their inception. When an evil is done, an instant desire is felt _to
discover the cause_; and when it is found, an instant desire is felt _to
inflict some penalty_. So irrational is this impulse, that children will
exhibit anger and deal blows on inanimate objects that cause pain. Even
mature minds are sometimes conscious of this impulse.
It is the office of the intellect to judge whether the deed was a
voluntary one, whether the agent intended the mischief, and whether a
penalty will be of any use. The impulse to punish is never preceded by
any such calculations.
That this impulse is an implanted part of our constitution, and not the
result of reason and experience, is seen in the delight manifested by
young children in the narration of the nursery tale where the cruel
uncle who murdered the Babes in the Wood receives the retributions of
Another feature in this sense of justice is the _proportion_ demanded
between the evil done and the penalty inflicted. That this also is
instinctive, and not the result of reason, is seen in the nursery, where
children will approve of slight penalties for slight offenses, and
severe ones for great ones, but will revolt from any very great
disproportion between the wrong act and its penalty. As a general rule,
both in the nursery and in the great family of mature minds, the greater
the wrong done, the stronger the desire for a penalty, and the more
severe the punishment demanded.
Another very important point of consideration is the universal feeling
of mankind that the _natural penalties_ for wrong-doing are _not
sufficient_, and that it is an act of love as well as of justice to add
to these penalties. Thus the parent who forbids his child to eat green
fruit will not trust to the results of the natural penalty, but restrain
by the fear of the immediate and more easily conceived penalty of
So, in the great family of man, the natural penalties for theft are not
deemed sufficient, but severe penalties for the protection of property
This particular is the foundation of certain distinctions that are of
great importance, which will now be pointed out.
We find the terms “_reward_ and _punishment_” used in two different
relations. In the first and widest sense they signify not only the
penalties of human law, but those _natural consequences_ which, by the
constitution of nature, inevitably follow certain courses of conduct.
Thus an indolent man is said to receive poverty as a punishment, and it
is in this sense that his children are said to be punished for the
faults of their father.
The violations of natural law are punished without any reference to the
question whether the evil-doer intended the wrong, or whether he sinned
in ignorance, or whether this ignorance was involuntary and unavoidable.
The question of the justice or injustice of such natural penalties
involves the great question of the right and wrong of the system of the
universe. Is it just and right for the Creator to make a system in which
all free agents shall be thus led to obedience to its laws by penalties
as well as rewards, by fear as well as by hope? This question will not
be discussed here.
Most discussions as to _just_ rewards and penalties ordinarily relate to
the _added_ penalties by which parents, teachers, and magistrates
enforce obedience to natural or to statute law.
In these questions reference is always had to the _probable results_ of
such rewards and penalties in securing obedience. If experience has
shown that certain penalties do secure obedience to wise and good laws,
either of nature or of human enactment, then they are considered just.
If they do not, they are counted unwise and unjust.
So, if certain penalties are needlessly severe–that is to say, if a
less penalty will secure equal obedience, then this also decides so
severe a penalty to be unjust.
In deciding on the rectitude of the penalties of human enactments, it is
always assumed to be unjust to punish for any lack of knowledge and
obedience when the subject had _no power_ to know and to obey. If _a
choice to obey_ will not secure the act required of a free agent, then a
penalty inflicted for disobedience is always regarded as unjust. The
only seeming exception to this is the case where a person, by voluntary
means, has deprived himself of ability to obey. But in such cases the
punishment is felt to be right, not because he does not obey when he has
no power, but because he has voluntarily deprived himself of this power.
And he is punished for destroying his ability to obey, and not for
violating the law.
These things in human laws, then, are always demanded to make a penalty
appear _just_ to the moral sense of mankind, namely, that the subject
have power to obey, and that he has opportunity to know the law, and is
not ignorant by any voluntary and improper neglect.
In all questions of justice, therefore, it is important to discriminate
between those penalties that are inherent as a part of the great system
of the universe, and for which the Creator alone is the responsible
cause, and those which result from voluntary institutions of which men
are the authors.
In connection with this subject, it is important to recognize the
distinction that exists in regard to two classes of right and wrong
actions. The first class includes those which are wrong in their nature
and in all supposable cases, such, for example, as the wanton infliction
of needless pain, or the breach of plighted faith, or the returning of
love and kindness with ungrateful treatment. In all possible
suppositions, the mind revolts from such actions as wrong and deserving
of penalties. It is this class of actions which, without any reasoning,
the mind never fails to disapprove, and to desire should be visited with
The other class of right and wrong acts derive their estimate solely
from the circumstances in which they occur. For example, a man is angry
and beats a little child. Now the question whether his feelings and
action are right or wrong depends entirely on circumstances. If the
child has done no evil and the person knew it, his feelings and actions
are wrong. But if the person is a father correcting his child for some
heinous fault and with only a suitable degree of anger, then the feeling
and action are right.
There is another mode of estimating conduct by which the same act may
have two opposite characters, according to the _relation_ in which it is
regarded. For example, a good parent may give wrong medicine to his
child, or punish an innocent one, believing him to be guilty.
In such cases the act is right as it respects the motive or intention,
and wrong as it respects the nature of the action. It is sometimes the
case that a man may do a right action with a bad motive, and a wrong
action with a good motive.
Thus the same act is right in one relation, and wrong in another. It is
important that this distinction should be borne in mind.
The next feature in our moral constitution is the susceptibility which
is excited by the intellectual judgment of our own feelings and conduct
as either right or wrong.
In case we decide them to be right, we experience an emotion of
self-approval which is very delightful; but if we decide that they are
wrong, we experience an immediate penalty in a painful emotion called
_remorse_. This emotion is always proportioned to the amount of evil
done, and the consciousness that it was done knowingly and
intentionally. No suffering is more keen than the highest emotions of
this kind, while their pangs are often enduring and unappeasable.
Sometimes there is an attending desire to inflict retribution on one’s
self as a mode of alleviating this distress.
This susceptibility is usually denominated _conscience_. Sometimes this
word is used to include both the intellectual judgment of our conduct as
right or wrong, and the consequent emotions of approval or remorse;
sometimes it refers to the susceptibility alone. Either use is correct,
as in the connection in which it is employed the distinction can
ordinarily be easily made.
This analysis of our moral constitution furnishes means for a clear
definition of such terms as _obligated_, _ought_, _ought not_, and the
A person is obligated or ought to do a thing when he has the intellect
to perceive that it is right, and the moral susceptibilities just
described. When he is destitute either of the intellect or of these
susceptibilities, he ceases to be a moral and accountable being. He can
no longer be made to feel any moral obligations.