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it is at present, and as it was in time past; the same among all nations, and in all corners of the earth nor are we deceived, because, allowing for slight differences occasioned by culture and other accidental circumstances, the fact corresponds to our perception.
Thirdly, We perceive that this common nature is right and perfect, and that it ought to be a model or standard for every human being. Any remarkable deviation from it in the structure of an individual, appears imperfect or irregular; and raises a painful emotion: a monstrous birth, exciting curiosity in a philosopher, fails not at the same time to excite aversion in every spectator.
This sense of perfection in the common nature of man, comprehends every branch of his nature, and particularly the common sense of right and wrong; which accordingly is perceived by all to be perfect, having authority over every individual as the ultimate and unerring standard of morals, even in contradiction to private conviction. Thus, a law in our nature binds us to regulate our conduct by that standard: and its authority is universally acknowledged; as nothing is more ordinary in every dispute about meum et tuum, than an appeal to common sense as the ultimate and unerring standard.
At the same time, as that standard, through infirmity or prejudice, is not conspicuous to every individual; many are misled into erroneous opiH 4 nions
nions, by mistaking a false standard for that of nature. And hence a distinction between a right and a wrong sense in morals; a distinction which every one understands, but which, unless for the conviction of a moral standard, would have no meaning.
The final cause of this branch of our nature is conspicuous. Were there no standard of right and wrong for determining endless controversies about matters of interest, the strong would have recourse to force, the weak to cunning, and society would dissolve. Courts of law could afford no remedy; for without a standard of morals, their decisions would be arbitrary, and of no authority. Happy it is for men to be provided with such a standard! it is ecessary in society that our actions be uniform with respect to right and wrong; and in order to uniformity of action, it is necessary that our perceptions of right and wrong be also uniform: to produce such uniformity, a standard of morals is indispensable Nature has provided us with that standard, which is daily applied by courts of law with success
In reviewing what is said, it must afford great satisfaction to find morality established upon the solid foundations of intuitive perception; which is a single mental act complete in itself, having no dependence on any antecedent proposition. The most accurate reasoning affords not equal convic
See Elements of Criticism, vol. ii. p. 490. edit. 5.
tion; for every sort of reasoning, as explained in the sketch immediately foregoing, requires not only self-evident truths or axioms to found upon, but employs over and above various propositions to bring out its conclusions. By intuitive perception solely, without reasoning, we acquire knowledge of right and wrong; of what we may do, of what we ought to do, and of what we ought to abstain from: and considering that we have thus greater certainty of moral laws than of any proposition discoverable by reasoning, man may well be deemed a favourite of Heaven, when he is so admirably qualified for doing his duty. The moral sense or conscience is the voice of God within us; constantly admonishing us of our duty, and requiring from us no exercise of our faculties but attention merely. The celebrated Locke ventured what he thought a bold conjecture, That moral duties are susceptible of demonstration: how agreeable to him would have been the discovery, that they are founded upon intuitive perception, still more convincing and authoritative!
By one branch of the moral sense, we are taught what we ought to do; and what we ought not to do; and by another branch, what we may do, or leave undone. But society would be imperfect, if the moral sense stopped here. There is a third branch that makes us accountable for our conduct to our fellow-creatures; and it will be made evident afterward in the third sketch, that we are
accountable to our Maker, as well as to our fellow-creatures.
It follows from the standard of right and wrong, that an action is right or wrong, independent of what the agent may think. Thus, when a man, excited by friendship or pity, rescues a heretic from the flames, the action is right, even though he think it wrong, from a conviction that heretics ought to be burned. But we apply a different standard to the agent: a man is approved and held to be innocent in doing what he himself thinks right he is disapproved and held to be guilty in doing what he himself thinks wrong. Thus to assassinate an atheist for the sake of religion, is a wrong action; and yet the enthusiast who.commits that wrong, may be innocent: and one is guilty who against conscience eats meat in Lent, though the action is not wrong. In short, an action is perceived to be right or wrong, independent of the actor's own opinion: but he is approved or disapproved, held to be innocent or guilty, according to his own opinion.
Laws of Nature respecting our Moral Conduct in Society.
STANDARD being thus established for regulating our moral conduct in society, we proceed to investigate the laws that result from it.
But first we take under consideration, what other principles concur with the moral sense to qualify men for society.
When we reflect on the different branches of human knowledge, it might seem, that of all subjects human nature should be the best understood; because every man has daily opportunities to study it, in his own passions and in his own actions. But human nature, an interesting subject, is seldom left to the investigation of philosophy. Writers of a sweet disposition and warm imagination, hold, that man is a benevolent being, and that every man ought to direct his conduct for the good of all, without regarding himself but as one of the number *. Those of a cold temperament and contracted mind, hold him to be an animal entirely selfish, to evince which, examples are accumulated without end t. Neither of these systems is that of nature. The selfish system is contradicted by the experience of all ages, affording the clearest evidence, that men frequently act for the sake of others, without regarding themselves, and sometimes in direct opposition to their own interest ‡. And
Whatever wiredrawn arguments may be urged for the selfish system, as if benevolence were but refined selfishness, the emptiness of such arguments will clearly appear when applied to children, who know no refinement. In them, the rudiments of the social principle are no less visible than of the selfish