Images de page
PDF
ePub

subjects that he has taken in hand, than in any other, not to say than in all others put together. His talent, also, for illustration is unrivalled. But his thoughts are diffused through a long, various, and irregular work. I shall account it no mean praise, if I have been sometimes able to dispose into method, to collect into heads and articles, or to exhibit in more compact and tangible masses, what, in that otherwise excellent performance, is spread over too much surface.

MORAL PHILOSOPHY,

[INTRODUCTION.]

[In works like the present, it is intended that the subject of human duties and virtues should be treated as a science, which implies that there are modes of dealing with it other than scientific, and likewise that some distinct advantages are derivable from the extension to this department of knowledge of the peculiar methods employed with success in certain other departments.

1. If it be asked, wherein lies the difference between the scientific knowledge of a subject, and other modes of viewing the same things, we may say in reply, briefly, that in a science, all the terms or words made use of have a clearly-defined significationthat the statements of fact are generalised to the utmost possible degree, so that the greatest possible compass of information can be given in the fewest words—and, lastly, that whatever is affirmed, has been subjected to a rigorous process of proof, and been thereby placed beyond the reach of contradiction. Precision, generality, and absolute certainty, are the indispensable characters of every statement or assertion claiming to constitute a doctrine of science. Such is the nature of the various principles contained in mathematics, astronomy, electricity, or chemistry.

II. Systematic morality differs in several respects from the lastnamed sciences; and one of the points of difference requires to be broadly set forth at the very outset of the discussion that we are about to enter upon. Mathematics and chemistry are what are called Theoretical sciences, which is the name used to distinguish them from the Practical sciences. A theoretical exposition of any branch of knowledge, lays out the subject in the order best adapted

A

for comprehending it by the human mind; a practical exposition brings together from various sciences the knowledge suitable to some practical end. Euclid's Elements of Geometry are theoretical; that is, they include, in a systematic and orderly development, all the truths of elementary geometry known to the author. A treatise on navigation exemplifies à practical science; in it, principles are drawn from the theoretical sciences of mathematics, astronomy, magnetism, meteorology, &c., to suit the practical purposes of the seaman. A theoretical science professes to include the entire body of knowledge relating to some one department of natural operations : astronomy lays out everything known respecting the stars, planets, and other celestial luminaries ; physiology arranges into a systematic order the functions of living beings; while geology professes to comprehend, and put in intelligible shape, the sum of all that is known of the earth's crust. These sciences have for their object to furnish the human intellect with the knowledge of the world, and not to serve any immediate object of industrial or practical utility. On the other hand, the manuals of practical science-of navigation, engineering, medicine, or agriculture-treat as secondary the object of gratifying the thirst for knowledge, and address themselves to the ways and means of compassing their several ends in the business of human life.

Now, morality ranks among the practical sciences. It does not propose to regale the intellectual curiosity, by revelations of the order of the world in some particular department; its purpose is to bring together a body of knowledge suited to the working out of certain of the ends of human existence. This knowledge it must derive from all available sources ; if, however, the scientific character of the subject is to be maintained, the principles thus adduced must have the threefold nature above described—they must be precise, general, and certain, as well as adapted to the main purpose. The practical sciences, still more than the theoretical, require to be of undoubted veracity and precision. Less than rigorous truth may satisfy the contemplative intellect, but the urgencies of affairs need the clearest knowledge that is to be attained.

III. If morality is thus a practical science, and if all such sciences relate to the working out of some particular ends, the question arises : What is the end or ends that the moralist has to aim at ? Unless these are precisely understood, it is difficult to see how any science of morals can exist. In all the other branches of practical knowledge, the end is clear and unmistakable. In navigation, the aim is to cross the seas with safety and speed; and under this

[ocr errors]

general aim, there are a number of more specific desiderata demanding a preparation of exact knowledge. The ascertaining of the course by the compass, requires the seaman to know the variations of the compass; the finding of the latitude must be expressly provided for by means of observing the height of the sun, and by a number of tables and rules for working out the observations : in a word, the accomplishment of the chief end of the art involves a precise knowledge of the mode of acting in a number of particular emergencies incident to the following out of that end. In like manner, we might take up any other art based upon a foundation of scientific knowledge, and shew that there is a distinct object sought under each, and that the main object implies a great number of detailed emergencies, to all which the preparatory knowledge must be made to apply.

It so happens, however, that morality is an exception to the other sciences of practice, as regards the distinct and unanimous recognition of an end; in fact, the precise object to be aimed at by this science has been a matter of controversy ever since men took to the discussion of moral questions—that is, since the origin of Greek philosophy, more than four centuries before Christ.

It is easy to see why the practical object of the particular sciences of navigation, engineering, medicine, &c., should be free from ambiguity, while the object sought by morality is so uncertain. These other sciences have very partial, narrow, and exclusive ends; and what is of still more consequence, these ends are not final ends; they are only the means towards some larger and more comprehensive end. The conveyance of human beings and the produce of the earth across the seas, the construction of docks, and piers, and water-works, the growth of corn, the various manufacturing operations, are all subordinate objects; not one of them would be sought on its own account alone. They evidently point or converge to some higher object, to what constitutes the end of ends, the chief good of humanity. There may no difficulty in conceiving the character of the various partial and subordinate objects of practical endeavour, but there may be very considerable difficulty in settling the end that is to swallow up, appropriate, and determine all other ends. Such is the position of morality: it embraces the chief good of mankind, the welfare of the human race; it has to settle the ultimate destination and use of all that results from the working out of the other arts of life.

The end of morality is, therefore, the crowning end; it is the harmonious convergence and confluence of all the streams of human activity. Its very largeness and preponderance constitutes the difficulty of expressing it, and of agreeing about it. Every mode of defining it that has ever been proposed, points more or

be

less distinctly to the good of humanity. Some have looked upon obedience to the presumed will of God as the chief end of morality and of all human conduct; but this implies also that the self-same obedience is the means of procuring the greatest possible wellbeing of man.

It is highly desirable, that the ultimate criterion of human duty should be something definite and fixed; it is further desirable, that there should be rules of guidance suitable to the recurring emergencies of life, and intelligible to all men. Both the one and the other, both the final standard of appeal and the special rules of action, ought to be provided with all the precision, comprehensiveness, and certainty that scientific method can bestow: this done, we have a science of morality.

IV. The duties, virtues, obligations, or moral conduct of men, must therefore have reference to the great moral end, whatever it may be; the determination of the one is implied in the determination of the other. But before proceeding to inquire into the most precise mode of stating this highest end, we shall find it convenient to advert to the threefold position of human beings in reference to their conduct and duties, or to the variety of situation that has given birth to the triple classification of duties into Personal, Social, and Moral.

1. Man has, under an instinct of self-preservation, the care of his own being, or the maintenance of his bodily existence, with the provision of all things essential thereto. He has to supply all its necessities and cravings, to keep off every species of harm, and to beware of injurious excesses. Long before he can form the abstract conceptions of happiness or human perfection, he is possessed with a powerful instinct towards the securing of life, and of all the interests bound up in it. Whatever energies or faculties any creature can command, they will always be tasked to the utmost for the preservation of its existence, whenever that is threatened or at stake. All acquired experience, and the knowledge that can anticipate the future, are made use of, along with the primitive instincts, to control the impulses of the present. Each one finds in himself an ever-pressing impulse to seek his own safety, and the means of continued existence; were it not so, no creature, or race of creatures, could ever have existed at all. There is indispensably present in every class of beings a stimulus to provide for themselves, to observe the conditions of existence, to fulfil the laws and duties of their own preservation: these duties are often painful, and are sometimes overborne; but in the main, they are attended to. Thus it is that humanity is found everywhere in the practice of a code of prudential maxims

« PrécédentContinuer »