Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Paley's "Moral Philosophy"

The Archbishop of Dublin's edition of Paley's Moral Philosophy is a book of which the editor and the author have somewhat similar claims to attention. Making allowances for the difference between different generations, and also for that slight but deep distinction which appears to attach almost invariably to the members of the two universities, we might almost have thought that the archdeacon and the archbishop were successive avatars of the same person, if there had been no physical impossibility in the supposition. Each has the same clearness and point of style, each the same hearty terseness, and each has that legal temper of mind which is very uncommon in any one who has not had a legal training, and especially uncommon amongst the clergy.

The lasting popularity and authority which this and his other works have conferred upon Paley are the best of all illustrations of the immense importance of style—of the power of stating opinions clearly, courageously, and with pointed and appropriate illustrations. Paley's book is nothing more than a clear and short epitome of a theory of morals at least as old as Epicurus, connected with
Christianity by considerations of the most obvious kind, and followed by a neat summary of a variety of obvious, or at most not very recondite, duties. Indeed, Paley himself, in his preface, states with perfect truth that his work is little more than an abstract of that part of the diffuse but most remarkable book of Abraham Tucker which bears upon his subject. Though, however, the matter of the work is open to these observations, it would be almost impossible to overpraise its style. Reading Paley is like listening to the speech of a first-rate advocate who has thoroughly mastered his brief; and it might fairly be said that a large proportion of the other works which have been written on the subject are little more than briefs, more or less ill- drawn, from which Paley spoke. Indeed, the whole turn of Paley's mind was that of an advocate. Lardner's Testimonies stands in much the same relation to the Evidences as the Light of Nature does to the Moral Philosophy; and in just the same manner the Natural Theology is said to contain no original investigations, but to be a mere abridgment of Derham's Physico-Theology.

It was probably this absence of originality which induced Paley to elaborate his style with such extraordinary care and success; and it has none of that incompleteness and disproportion which must always mark originality more or less strongly. The love for detail, the partiality for the particular argument or special discovery which has cost hours of solitary thought, and the invention of which is a mental landmark in the composition of a book on such a subject, seldom or never displays itself in any part of Paley's works. All is finished off with a complete elaborate care which shows that the form assumed in the author's mind a more prominent place than the substance, and that he would have argued, if not with equal force, at least with equal skill, upon any side of any question submitted to him. It is customary, though most unfair, to charge this temper of mind upon Paley as a kind of crime. It ought to be viewed in the opposite light. The subjects on which he wrote engage not only the affections but the prejudices of mankind so vehemently, that it is impossible to overestimate the advantage of finding one writer upon whose immovable consistency the most implicit reliance may always be placed. He is, no doubt, an advocate and not a judge; but he is an honest advocate, from whose statements the logical consequences of any given premiss may be inferred with almost infallible certainty. It is but once or twice that Archbishop Whately takes exception to his logic, though he differs from him upon several questions which have been usually looked upon as essentially necessary to the solution of the question which he discusses. Why should there be anything immoral in a division of labour in controversy, when it is admitted in all other intellectual pursuits? Of the many difficulties imposed by custom on the discussion of morals and theology, none is more serious than that writers always feel themselves called upon to mix up sentiment with argument, to make a point of expressing their detestation of opinions with which they do not agree, and not only to state their convictions on all occasions in the strongest shape, but to rate at the very highest the grounds on which those opinions are entertained. The gist of most of the accusations of heartlessness and the like which it is usual to bring against Paley, is nothing more than that he did not observe in his writings this most unwise conventional rule.

If we turn from the form to the substance of Paley's book, the controversies which it has excited afford an excellent illustration of the facility with which the very clearest and most powerful thinkers fall into confusion respecting the nature of the questions which they have to solve, if the task of dividing them has not been performed by others. Many as have been the disputes respecting the questions which lie at the bottom of all systems of morality, it is only of late years that the fact that they can be considered upon independent grounds, and are not merely different ways of expressing two opinions on the subject, has been invested with anything like the prominence which it deserves; and even now it is by no means well understood or generally admitted. Archbishop Whately's notes appear to some extent to bring out the distinction in question, but they do not state it categorically; and Paley repeatedly uses language which proves that if the distinction presented itself to his mind, he did not consider it to rest on solid grounds.

It is often asserted, and almost always assumed, that the only question respecting the foundation of morality is, whether the ultimate decision in disputed questions is to be referred to the conscience or moral sense, by whatever name it may be called; or to the principle of utility, according to which the moral quality of an action is determined by its tendency to produce on the whole a balance of happiness. But closer attention makes it apparent that, in fact, the inquiry as to the nature and test of morality can by no means be settled in so summary a manner. It involves a considerable variety of perfectly independent considerations, which can be properly estimated only by methods which have as yet been but little cultivated, and which may probably tend to results far more complicated than those which we have been accustomed to look upon as embodying one or the other solution of the question. That the words "right" and *' wrong" have some meaning or other, is an indisputable truth, and that they are rightly employed to qualify particular actions is equally plain. Millions of people who never read a line of any moral speculation whatever say without hesitation that cheating or lying are wicked, and that honesty and gratitude are good; and it would be as absurd to deny that they have a distinct meaning when they make those assertions, as to say that no one but an astronomer is entitled to talk of years and days, or that no one but a mathematician knows what is meant by a yard or a pound. It is, however, unquestionably true, that it is one thing to have a vivid, and another to have a definite, perception of the meaning of words; and there can be no doubt that the task of discovering such definitions of terms in popular use as may best explain the associations under which, and the connections in which, they are used, is most important, because such definitions, when once propounded, exercise a strong influence over that which they have defined.

It is, however, essential to remember, that in framing a definition the principal question to be considered is always a question of fact. The person who defines gives, or ought to give, not his own view of the subject which he defines, but the nearest approach that he can obtain to an account of what is passing in the minds of his neighbours. The art of constructing a definition consists in finding a sufficiently large and well-marked class of facts answering pretty correctly to a word in popular use, and in appropriating the word for the future to that class of facts apart from all others. It is thus obvious that to construct a definition of common popular phrases is a very different thing from enunciating a complete theory of the subject to which the definition refers. If in this view a man tries to construct a definition of the words " good" or " bad" as applied to actions, he may very naturally say that he observes that in fact they are applied respectively to those courses of conduct which produce happiness or the reverse; nor is it easy to see why the fact that he adopts that conclusion should expose him to the imputation of teaching a selfish system of morals, or should preclude him from believing in the existence of conscience.

The three distinct questions—In what does the difference between right and wrong consist? how am I to know whether an action is right or wrong? why should I do what is right?—are usually confounded together. It is totally untrue to say that there is anything selfish or degrading in Bentham's theory that the test of the morality of an action is its tendency to produce a maximum of happiness. If any one held and taught the doctrine that an exclusive view to the promotion of his own individual
happiness was the only principle on which every man ought to govern his conduct, he might no doubt be accused, with fairness, of taking a sordid view of human life; but the bare belief that the test of the morality of an action is its tendency to produce happiness is consistent with the most sublime self-sacrifice, and, in point of fact, almost all persons adopt it when they are not arguing about the matter. Indeed, that course is inevitable when more than one person is a party to the discussion of the morality of a proposed course of conduct . On such occasions, the only alternative lies between an internal and an external standard of morality; and as all discussion implies a possibility of agreement between the parties to the argument, and that they tacitly consent to abide by some principle accessible to each, it follows that an external standard of morality is invariably assumed; for if the standard chosen were internal, it would follow either that only one of the disputants could have access to it, or that each would have a standard of his own. Whenever general rules are discussed, they are discussed upon the assumption that results are the test of their soundness, and no one has ever yet been able to bring forward an instance in which adherence to a general rule, which in the long run confessedly produced more pain than pleasure, could be justified in a free discussion. Such an admission would be universally looked upon as fatal to those who made it. A single well-known instance is supplied by the question of the lawfulness of marrying a deceased wife's sister. It would be impossible to mention a single opponent of the bill for legalizing such marriages who thinks that, on the whole, it should be rejected though the happiness of society would be increased by its passing; nor is there a single advocate of it who is of opinion that its enactment would be right though it could produce misery to many and satisfaction only to a few. The strongest opponent of Paley and Bentham might safely be challenged to produce an instance in which a general rule which he would describe as good was productive of misery; and if it is an admitted fact that goodness always has a general tendency to produce happiness, whilst its essential nature is a subject of endless disputes, it seems absurd to hesitate to accept a tendency to produce happiness —which is always ascertainable by the application of the ordinary tests of experience—as an index to the moral goodness of a course of conduct, in preference to its conformity to a standard which is always subject to dispute.

Agreement with the theory of Paley and Bentham as to the test of morality by no means implies—though it is usually and unjustly supposed to imply—an agreement with their views as to the other questions which are commonly regarded as essential to the construction of a theory of morality. These are the two questions which apply general morality to particular cases:—How am I to know what is right? and Why should / do right? These questions are entirely independent of the general one, which concerns the test of right and wrong, for they admit of being decided in opposite ways, whilst the decision on the first point remains unchanged. There would be no inconsistency in either of the following creeds upon the subject of morality. A man might say, " I believe that those actions which generally tend to produce happiness are right, and that those which generally tend to produce misery are wrong; and I also believe that every man has an internal monitor, by which he is warned to do those actions which generally tend to produce happiness and to avoid those which generally tend to produce misery." Or he might say,—" I believe that actions are right or wrong in virtue of their conformity or nonconformity with a certain transcendental rule which has no known or assignable connection with their general tendency to produce either happiness or the reverse; and I hold that men have no internal monitor by which they are reminded of this rule, but that there is a tradition respecting it, which is the best and the only true evidence of its provisions." In other words, a man might believe in the utilitarian theory of the nature of morals, and also in the supremacy of conscience; or he might believe in a transcendental theory of the nature of morality, and utterly repudiate the doctrine that conscience existed at all, or that, if it did exist, it was a safe guide to the appreciation of the moral character of actions. The doctrine of the guidance of conscience, and the doctrine that happiness is the test of morality, stand in absolutely no logical relation whatever. They are as independent of each other as the questions whether a particular road goes to London, and whether a particular man can show you the London road. Yet such has been the determination of most persons who have written on these matters to find out, not how people are made, but how they might be made, that it would be hard to name any one who, assuming an external standard of morality, admitted the existence of conscience, or who, admitting the existence of conscience, did not contend for an internal standard of morals.

It is, perhaps, a still more curious point in the controversy upon the existence of conscience, that both those who affirm and those who deny it usually assume that, if it exists at all, it must be the same in all men at all times. Paley argues that it does not exist, because, he says, in various times and countries, different views have prevailed as to the lawfulness and merit of particular actions, so that the crimes of one age and nation have been the virtues of another. Archbishop Whately seems to feel that this objection would be fatal if it were fully made out; but he maintains that there is such a uniformity in the general dictates of conscience from age to age, that we can distinguish between its normal operations and its occasional anomalies, and thus he preserves that unanimity which he apparently feels to be essential to its authority, if not to its existence. It is hard to understand the principle upon which these arguments proceed. That the word "conscience" has a meaning seems indisputable. What the thing may be which it represents—whether it is the same in all men and in all ages—whether it is acted on by circumstances, like the ordinary powers of the mind, or whether it differs from them in kind—and if so, whether or not it is consistent in its operations—are all questions of fact; and surely it is rash to say that the affirmative or negative of any one of them can be assumed without definite and prolonged investigation.

The third question—"Why should I do right?" —is obviously independent of both of the others. It is singular that Paley and other writers should have assumed that it is a question which not only admits of, but requires, a peremptory answer. His answer is simple and emphatic to the last degree—namely, that if you do right you will go to heaven, and if you do wrong to hell, which solution, he says, "goes to the bottom of the subject, as no further question can reasonably be asked." No doubt the solution goes to the bottom of the question; but it does not go to all sides of it. Neither Paley's view nor that of the Archbishop of Dublin—which appears to be that men are in some way bound by the constitution of their nature to act in a particular manner—would carry conviction to those who did not exactly coincide with them; and, in fact, neither of these views is the one on which people really do model their conduct. The subject is eminently one of those to which the maxim that the half is better than the whole applies. A probable reason is better than one which "goes to the bottom of the question." The reason why any given man should do right, is partly because his conscience (whether it be a natural or an artificial element of his nature) tells him to do so—partly because there is a strong and general belief that it is advisable to do so, which belief is confirmed by an enormous quantity of evidence of various kinds, direct and indirect — partly because it is generally a man's interest to act right—on the whole, because it appears to be, on every account, the best course to take. Why it should be supposed that, when there are so many good probable reasons for a particular line of conduct, it should be indispensable to their stability that they should be fortified by some final and conclusive one, is not very clear. The state of mind in which Paley appears to expect to find people in search of morality, is really hardly conceivable. His final argument is an answer to an objector, who, upon being told that he should do right because such is God's will, asks, "Why should I obey God?" The impudence of the question would deserve a different kind of reply. A man must be simply mad with vanity and presumption who would hesitate as to the propriety of doing what he believed himself to be enjoined to do, by an infinitely wise, powerful, and beneficent being.

Paley's book, and the Archbishop of Dublin's commentary, suggest the conclusion that the time for argument on these subjects has almost gone by. What is it possible to add to such writers as Paley, Bentham, Butler, and others who might readily be mentioned, except observations pointing out which are the weak, and which the strong points of their respective systems, and what are the limits of the questions which they discussed. This, however, is a narrow field. It would not be impossible, perhaps not difficult, to exhibit a synopsis of all the metaphysical views which it is possible to take upon the eternal topics of controversy which have exercised the understandings of so many generations. "What shall the man do that comes after the king?"

Though, however, the metaphysical labyrinth is pretty well explored, there is another department of inquiry upon these matters which is hardly touched; and every fresh examination of the subject shows the degree in which it has been overlooked or neglected, and the magnitude of the results which may be expected from its cultivation. This is the historical side of the question. About half of Paley's Moral Philosophy is occupied by disputations on political philosophy, as he calls it, though he uses the words in a sense somewhat different from that in which they are generally applied in these days. Almost the whole of his views on this subject are ultimately founded on certain theories about natural rights and the state of nature. These questions are all by right historical questions, and the result of this mode of treating them—a mode common to all parties at that period—is that arbitrary assumptions take the place of historical inquiry. Thus Paley goes into the question of the origin of property, and the origin of wills, purely upon grounds of what he calls natural law. He gives a chapter on " the history of property," which consists of a page and a quarter,, and is entirely composed of a series of assumptions. Thus, he says, the "fruits which a man gathered, and the wild animals he caught, were the first objects of property;" and as to wills, he says that the power of making a will of the produce of a man's own personal labour is a natural right. In a word, like almost all writers on what is called natural law, whenever anything appears to him to be obviously expedient or extremely probable, he immediately makes it into an historical fact. Now history, patiently examined, can tell us much about the origin of property and of wills, and it discloses results of the most unexpected kind—for example, the connection between wills and the practice of adoption; nor can any study be more interesting than that of the growth of those institutions which believers in natural law trace by an a priori method. Whenever history is applied by competent persons to the investigation of moral and metaphysical questions, and to the growth of metaphysical conceptions, we shall see results which will throw into the shade the ingenuity of a priori reasoners upon these subjects.

Saturday Review, April 9, 1859.

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