He then goes on to argue that the teaching of the Church is quite as essential in regard to morality as in regard to dogma. 'If we begin to reason on the doctrine of morals, on enmities, on usury, on mortification, on lying, on chastity, on marriage, setting out with the principle that the Holy Scripture must be reduced to sound reason' (la droite raison), ‘where shall we not go? Will it not be as easy to persuade men that it has not pleased God to carry their obligations beyond the principles of good sense, as to persuade them that it has not pleased him to carry their faith beyond good reasoning?' But inasmuch as opinions may differ in regard to morals, we shall have to tolerate moral as well as doctrinal mistakes; and the ultimate result will be an absence of moral authority equal and parallel to the absence of dogmatic authority.
This, like the rest of the work to which it belongs, forms part of a controversy with various authors who are cited, and with whose teaching we have little to do in the present day; but the remark suggests some of the most curious points in the whole range of speculation—points to which we think far too little attention has been paid by those who have written on this subject.
The first and most remarkable of these consists in the fact that, notwithstanding all that is and has been said upon the subject of the immutable character of morality, the inherent difference between right and wrong, and the infallibility of the individual conscience in pointing out the distinction between them, morality has, in point of fact, varied immensely from age to age, and from country to country; and this not only amongst countries divided from each other by differences of race and creed, but in the very same country, and under the influences of the very same creed. This fact is so little appreciated that it is worth while to insist upon and illustrate it a little, before proceeding to draw the inferences which it suggests. Let us, then, consider in what respects moral systems must resemble each other, and in what respects they can differ. We will afterwards consider how far, in point of fact, they actually do differ.
All moral systems are regulated by some ideal of human conduct and character, and classify the actions of life according to their agreement with or divergency from this ideal. All of them are intended to regulate human conduct, and are therefore armed with some sanction; and these sanctions are three in number—the religious or ecclesiastical, the legal, and the moral or popular sanction. Casuistry appealed almost exclusively to the ecclesiastical sanction. The bad action of the casuists was a sin to be confessed, and to be taken into account by a confessor, in giving or withholding absolution.
Moral theories in all countries are armed, to an extent and in shapes which vary indefinitely, with the legal sanction; and, to whatever extent this is the case at a given time and place, they are laws in the proper sense of the word. An action condemned by such a theory is a crime or a wrong as the case may be. Lastly, modern theories of morality appeal, as a rule, to the popular, and also to the conscientious, sanction, which again they try to bring into harmony with each other. The actions condemned by such theories as these, are acts of which men disapprove, though there is no specific name which contradistinguishes them as clearly as crimes and sins.
To use a legal metaphor, the legal sanction sounds in human punishment, the ecclesiastical sanction in divine miraculous punishment, and the popular and conscientious sanction in disapprobation, either by the public, or by a man's own feelings. This being the nature of moral systems, it is easy to see in what respects they can differ. They may be founded on different ideals of character. They may apply their sanctions to different actions, and the sanctions so applied may differ indefinitely in point of severity. Moreover, each of the three systems may at different times be more or less effectual, both in itself and in comparison with the two others.
We doubt whether many persons are habitually aware of the extent to which moral systems have, in point of fact, varied in Christian Europe, in all these respects, even in modern times. If we take into our view other parts of the world, it would probably result, from a full examination of the subject, that no one moral doctrine whatever would fulfil the test quod semper quod ubique quod ab omnibus. Particular actions might no doubt be mentioned which would be approved or blamed by almost all human beings, at all times; but it would be difficult to mention a single moral rule or principle, which has always been conceived in the same way, placed on the same basis, and worked out into the same consequences.
First of all, take the ideal by which moral systems are regulated at different times. If this differs, it is obvious that the difference will be repeated in every part of the various systems founded upon it. Now, in point of fact, it has differed widely. One opinion which has exercised immense influence over the whole course of moral speculation has been that good and evil differ from each other in their essence, that they are the names of qualities inherent in our actions independently of any consideration as to their being forbidden or permitted by a superior, and also independently of the nature of the consequences which they may produce. Another theory measures the goodness and badness of actions by their results.
So, again, the will of God has usually been regarded in modern Europe as at all events the principal sanction of morals, and, so far as it was capable of being recognised, as the great guide towards ascertaining what is right and what not; but the most various opinions have prevailed at different times, and amongst different people at the same time, as to the Divine character, and these opinions have been reflected in every part of every moral system founded upon them.
A very few illustrations will show how wide and important are the differences, in respect of practical morality, which flow from these two sources—namely, the controversy as to the nature of right and wrong, and the different views which prevail as to the Divine character. A good illustration of them may be found in the different theories which have prevailed as to justice. Suppose, first, that right and wrong mean something more than conformity with, or divergence from, a rule tending to promote the general happiness—admit that a thing may be right and good though it has no relation at all to the happiness of any sentient being, or to the commands issued by any such being—and it is obvious that you may at once get the well-known opposition between justice and mercy.
Justice is the enforcing of certain rules having a tendency to bring about that which is right and good in itself, no matter what may be the consequences to individuals. Mercy, on the other hand, is the desire to save individuals from the penalties which justice inflicts. The two therefore are, or may be, directly opposed to each other; and if God be regarded as a being at once just and merciful, it is obvious that these attributes will clash, and produce discordant and inconsistent results. If, however, right and wrong are regarded as denoting conformity with or divergence from rules calculated to promote happiness, then the whole opposition between justice and mercy vanishes; justice is nothing but systematic benevolence, and that which is unjust can no more be merciful than that which is unmerciful can be just. The punishment of a criminal is not more unmerciful than a surgical operation. The pardon of a criminal, when it can be granted consistently with the objects of law, is no more unjust than the omission of an operation which is not required.
The matter may perhaps be made still plainer by a broader illustration. It is obvious that our view of the nature of sins and crimes will correspond to our theory of the character of moral distinctions. Upon the one theory, sin or crime is something indefinitely terrible and tremendous, the nature of which can hardly be described or even conjectured. Upon the other theory, it is constantly tending to be viewed as a mistake or a disease.
Again, the theory of the true character of punishment, and therefore the limitations imposed upon its nature and extent, will differ according to these differences. The theory of propitiation, or expiation, is connected with the one principle, the theory of example, and reformatory discipline, with the other. The notion of propitiation, again, readily connects itself with asceticism. Suffering, upon this view, is a good thing in itself, because it has a remedial efficacy against evil. It is needless to dwell upon the practical results of this divergence, which goes down to the very roots of morality, and acts upon practice in every conceivable way. We can see the two modes of thought at work in all directions, bearing on all sorts of subjects, and affecting people's conduct and actions in all the most important affairs of life.
Moral controversies, however, differ—not only in their general complexion, but in the ideal at which they aim. This difference works itself out in detail in reference to particular actions. People often suppose that morals are simple and uniform, because particular sweeping maxims are generally received. Honour thy father and thy mother, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet, are no doubt maxims of which the force is, and has been, recognised, all over Christendom at all events, for eighteen centuries.
This, however, when examined, proves only a very general resemblance in the morality of different ages and countries. It shows that the subject-matter of all morality is the same—namely, the regulation of human conduct in certain particulars; but it by no means proves that all human conduct has been regulated by the same rules. Indeed, in respect to every one of these maxims it might be shown that wide differences of opinion and practice — differences which can be fully understood only by reference to principles lying at the root of the whole matter—have prevailed, and do still prevail, even in Christian countries.
'Honour thy father and thy mother' is a precept which in its obvious and primary sense has been interpreted in very different ways, as the varying extent of parental authority, both by law and by custom in different countries, fully proves. Take a single illustration. To what extent have parents a right to forbid the marriage of their children? Both the practice and the law differ widely in England and France. Parental authority, however, is commonly taken by moralists as the type of all authority, and 'Honour thy father and thy mother' as an injunction to obey the civil government.
What are men's relations to civil governments? How, and by what principles, is the duty of obedience to them limited? 'Thou shalt do no murder.' Is war murder'? Is capital punishment murder? Is duelling murder? 'Thou shalt not commit adultery.' Is divorce permissible? Within what limits of relationship is marriage forbidden, and on what principles are those limits fixed? Is polygamy wrong, and, if so, is it wrong because it is forbidden, or forbidden because it is wrong? 'Thou shalt not steal.' How far is a man's right to his property absolute? When and how may he be deprived of it for the public good? Is it theft to confiscate corporate property, as in the case of monasteries? Was it theft to disfranchise the rotten boroughs in 1832? Is conquest theft and robbery?' Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' In what cases may we deviate from the truth? 'Thou shalt not covet.' Is all ambition and all desire of what we have not got sinful, and, if not, why not, and how otherwise?
Endless differences of opinion exist upon all these questions, and upon a thousand others into which they branch off, and each of the questions arising upon them is susceptible of as many different answers as there are views of the nature of good and evil in general, of the character of God, and of the ideal of human life.
It is worth while to observe, in passing, how strikingly these observations display the truth that our knowledge rises from the particular to the general, and does not descend from the general to the particular. A number of ways of dealing with property are called theft; but when you come to consider whether a particular act is theft or not, the maxim 'Thou shalt not steal' is useless, for it forbids the act in question only if it is theft. Hence the general use of such words as theft, murder, adultery, and the rest, proves, not that there is a general consent as to right and wrong, but that in all times and countries some ways of destroying life or dealing with property, and some kinds of relations between the sexes, have been disapproved and stigmatised by a dyslogistic epithet.
Even these differences, wide as they undoubtedly are, form only a part of the controversies which exist on moral subjects. Moral theories, as we have observed, are enforced by different sanctions, and are framed for different purposes, and the degrees of influence of these different theories upon different persons at different times are indefinitely dissimilar.
Take, for instance, the casuistical view of morality, or, as it is more properly called, the view of writers on moral theology. It would require an acquaintance with writers on this subject to which we do not pretend, to give anything like a fair account of the way in which they deal with moral problems, and it would require knowledge which no one possesses, to give an account of the practical working of the system founded on their theories, or to attempt to appreciate its value.
A few remarks, however, may be offered which we believe are not substantially incorrect, though they are of necessity very slight. Casuists regard morality as a vast system of criminal law administered by priests in confessionals, where the penitent is the accuser and the witness, and the priest the judge. From the casuist's point of view, every sin, even if it be only a sin of thought, is a crime for which the criminal is liable to temporal or eternal punishment as the case may be, unless he is relieved from it by repentance, penance, and absolution. It is obvious that this requires the most detailed analysis of human conduct, as being either sinful or not sinful; and, if sinful, as being either mortally or venially sinful.
To read a casuist is like walking, as Jeremy Taylor said, through a hospital. You see case after case detailed with all the precision and minuteness of a law report, and marked off from each other by circumstances which, in the writer's opinion, distinguish the mortal from the venial sin, or, as lawyers would say, the felony from the misdemeanour. As the Roman Catholic Church itself authorises the writings of casuists only in a negative way, i.e. as containing nothing worthy of condemnation, there is a great conflict of opinions as to the character of sins and as to the sinfulness of particular acts; and perhaps all the great moral controversies would be found to repeat themselves in the works of the casuists.
What, for instance, can be more significant than the great controversy as to the love of God, upon which the Jesuits maintained that mere abstinence from sinful acts, arising from fear of punishment, was all that was requisite to salvation; and that attrition (fear of being damned) and absolution were together enough to secure a man's pardon for such sinful acts? According to this doctrine—part of which was energetically combated by other Roman Catholic divines, and especially by Bossuet—the meanest and most vicious coward might sneak into heaven if his cowardice only took the right turn, and if he had the luck to get hold of a priest when he was dying.
We do not at present inquire into the question of the truth of this system. We merely wish to point out how essentially it differs from the moral theories which exercise the greatest amount of influence in our own time and country, and which address themselves, not to the legal sanction, natural or supernatural, but to the sanction enforced by the conscience of the individual and the consciences of the public at large.
The difference lies in the fact that, in the one case, nothing is decided but a question which, at bottom, is purely legal. Does this act expose me, ay or no, to a certain penalty? In the other case, the question may possibly be put into a legal form. Is this act one which will involve the penalty of a bad conscience and of public disapproval wherever it is known, and of the disapproval of God, whether expressed in the form of punishment or not?
But the character of these penalties is so peculiar that it is almost an abuse of language to give them such a name. They are rather guides towards an ideal, to be reached at last in some measure and with many shortcomings, than punishments proper. They one and all imply in various ways that to avoid punishment is a subordinate matter; indeed, that we ought not to seek to avoid it, but to welcome it as a good when it is required, inasmuch as the really important thing is to be in a state of moral health, to which wise punishment powerfully contributes. These two conceptions of the nature of moral rules—the conception which makes them a system of criminal law, and the conception which makes them, so to speak, counsels for the soul's health—render the rules themselves, of which the systems are composed, exceedingly different, and exercise, in different ages of the world, different kinds and degrees of influence over human conduct.
We have now attempted to give a sort of sketch of the magnitude of the moral controversies which exist in the world, and of the manner in which they embrace every point as to which moral theories can possibly differ. This review, which might be indefinitely lengthened, suggests, amongst other things, a question which is asked by Bayle. How does it happen, he says, that differences upon questions of dogmatic theology, to which it is hardly possible for people in general to attach any signification at all, should have caused irreconcilable quarrels, and brought men to the stake by hundreds, whilst differences affecting the whole cast of our conduct and the whole course of our life have been regarded as open questions, on which the widest differences might prevail without offence even amongst members of the same communion?
A few cases may undoubtedly be mentioned—like that of the Quakers—in which religious bodies have been distinguished principally by their views upon questions of morals; and all religious controversies have a powerful secondary influence on morals, as we see in the case of Protestants and Roman Catholics.
In the main, however, Bayle's observation is perfectly true, and will be found to hold good in our own days as well as in his. It must be within almost every one's experience that people show great distress and anxiety upon the subject of their doctrinal views, and that, when these views are disturbed in any way, they look in all directions for some one who will take off their hands the responsibility of having an opinion on such subjects. On the other hand, they are seldom, if ever, distressed by difficulties on the subject of morality, unless they immediately affect their own personal conduct in regard to some particular transaction; and even then the light desired is rather with a view to the decision of the particular question, than with a view to the general principle on which it depends, however important that may be.
In a word, ignorance or uncertainty as to moral questions appears to be considered as natural as the same state of mind about dogmatic questions is considered wicked. Probably one of the principal causes of this difference, is that every one is continually being assured by his own experience that, whatever any one may please to say upon the subject, there is a degree of doubtfulness about moral subjects from which it is in vain to try to escape. The very fact that different standards of right and wrong are employed for different purposes, by persons who think on such subjects in different spirits, is in itself the strongest possible evidence of the uncertainty in which the whole matter is wrapped up. Men's consciences, and their habitual ways of using language, will not and cannot be forced to surrender at discretion to any theories whatever. In regard to dogmas, on the other hand, as their reception rests, or is supposed to rest, exclusively upon evidence and authority, a doubt of the dogma is, in fact, a doubt of the authority which asserts its truth; and a doubt upon one point involves a doubt on all.
This consideration will no doubt explain, at least to some extent, what is nevertheless a great anomaly. It does not, however, deprive of its force an observation which naturally suggests itself to any one who appreciates the degree in which morals are, in fact, doubtful, and the slightness of the importance which common feeling attributes to that fact.
When the matter is properly considered, it certainly appears as if the observation of Bossuet with which we began this article ought to be inverted. It would seem that we ought to say, not, If dogmas are laid open to dispute we shall have to tolerate a difference in morals; but, Since differences of such vast importance are, and must be, tolerated even in regard to morals, and produce so little real inconvenience, why need you be so much alarmed at the prospect of a permitted difference as to dogmas?
Since the Ten Commandments are so vague and general, and since your own divines who have to interpret them arrive at such different results, why are you so much horrified at a similar vagueness in the Creed, and at a similar degree of diversity in the detailed application of its general doctrines? If members of one communion can agree to differ on the question whether mere abstinence from sin, produced by fear of punishment, and altogether unaccompanied by anything which can be called love of God, is, or is not, sufficient for salvation, why should they not agree to differ on the question whether any, and which, of the various interpretations of 'This is my body' is the true one? The only answer which can possibly be given to this, is that the Church (whatever that may mean) has, as a fact, decided one set of questions and not the other; and this answer clearly proves that the utmost result which a system of ecclesiastical authority can produce is obedience, and such a degree of unity of belief as the habitual profession of a common creed insensibly produces. The theory always is that the Church is the guardian of a tradition which was originally divinely revealed, and that it only declares from time to time what its doctrines are, without making new ones. The divergency between moralists shows that, upon moral questions at all events, there is no such thing as a uniform tradition. The degree of authority which is exercised over them by the Church, and the similarity of doctrine which is thus maintained, prove that the Church exercises a legislative authority over them, and produces thereby a certain uniformity. This shows that such uniformity in morals as does exist is the work of submission to a common legislator, not of consent in a common tradition; and it would be no difficult matter to show that precisely the same process has taken place in the history of dogmas.
In conclusion, we may observe that a curious essay might be written on moral doctrines which have in course of time become obsolete. The theory of persecution, which, as we have shown on a former occasion, was the very corner-stone of Bossuet's whole system; the theory of usury; the theories current in all countries, Protestant and Roman Catholic, as to the proper use of Sunday; the theory as to the moral right of the legislature of a nation to make laws about marriage—all afford illustrations of the general truth that our moral code is by no means final, but is continually undergoing a process of reconstruction. If this fact is fully appreciated, and connected with its inevitable consequences, it will be found to throw a flood of light on all the questions which have been, and are still, so vehemently agitated as to the real meaning of the distinction between right and wrong, and the true theory of the importance, the rights and the duties, of conscience.
Saturday Review, February 23, 1867.