Of Ethics in General
Happiness and misery are the two great springs of human actions, and though through different ways we find men so busy in the world, they all aim at happiness, and desire to avoid misery, as it appears to them in different places and shapes.
I do not remember that I have heard of any nation of men who have not acknowledged that there has been right and wrong in men's actions, as well as truth and falsehood in their sayings; some measures there have been everywhere owned, though very different; some rules and boundaries to men's actions, by which they were judged to be good or bad; nor is there, I think, any people amongst whom there is not distinction between virtue and vice; some kind of morality is to be found everywhere received; I will not say perfect and exact, but yet enough to let us know that the notion of it is more or less everywhere, and that men think that even where politics, societies, and magistrates are silent, men yet are under some laws to which they owe obedience.
But, however morality be the great business and concernment of mankind, and so deserves our most attentive application and study; yet in the very entrance this occurs very strange and worthy our consideration, that morality hath been generally in the world rated as a science distinct from theology, religion, and law; and that it hath been the proper province of philosophers, a sort of men different both from divines, priests, and lawyers, whose profession it has been to explain and teach this knowledge to the world; a plain argument to me of some discovery still amongst men, of the law of nature, and a secret apprehension of another rule of action which rational creatures had a concernment to conform to, besides what either the priests pretended was the immediate command of their God (for all the heathen ceremonies of worship pretended to revelation, reason failing in the support of them), or the lawyer told them was the command of the Government.
But yet these philosophers seldom deriving these rules up to their original, nor arguing them as the commands of the great God of heaven and earth, and such as according to which he would retribute to men after this life, the utmost enforcements they could add to them were reputation and disgrace by those names of virtue and vice, which they endeavoured by their authority to make names of weight to their scholars and the rest of the people. Were there no human law, nor punishment, nor obligation of civil or divine sanctions, there would yet still be such species of actions in the world as justice, temperance, and fortitude, drunkenness, and theft, which would also be thought some of them good, some bad; there would be distinct notions of virtues and vices; for to each of these names there would belong a complex idea, or otherwise all these and the like words which express moral things in all languages would be empty, insignificant sounds, and all moral discourses would be perfect jargon. But all the knowledge of virtues and vices which a man attained to, this way, would amount to no more than taking the definitions or the significations of the words of any language, either from the men skilled in that language, or the common usage of the country, to know how to apply them, and call particular actions in that country by their right names; and so in effect would be no more but the skill how to speak properly, or at most to know what actions in the country he lives in are thought laudable or disgraceful; i. e. are called virtues and vices: the general rule whereof, and the most constant that I can find is, that those actions are esteemed virtuous which are thought absolutely necessary to the preservation of society, and those that disturb or dissolve the bonds of community are everywhere esteemed ill and vicious.
This would necessarily fall out, for were there no obligation or superior law at all, besides that of society, since it cannot be supposed that any men should associate together and unite in the same community, and at the same time allow that for commendable, i. e. count it a virtue, nay not discountenance and treat such actions as blameable, i. e. count them vices which tend to the dissolution of that society in which they were united; but all other actions that are not thought to have such an immediate influence on society I find not (as far as I have been conversant in histories), but that in some countries or societies they are virtues, in others vices, and in others indifferent, according as the authority of some esteemed wise men in some places, or as inclination or fashion of people in other places, have happened to establish them virtues or vices; so that the ideas of virtues taken up this way teach us no more than to speak properly according to the fashion of the country we are in, without any very great improvement of our knowledge, more than what men meant by such words; and this is the knowledge contained in the common ethics of the schools; and this is not more but to know the right names of certain complex modes, and the skill of speaking properly.
The ethics of the schools, built upon the authority of Aristotle, but perplexed a great deal more with hard words and useless distinctions, telling us what he or they are pleased to call virtues and vices, teach us nothing of morality, but only to understand their names, or call actions as they or Aristotle does; which is, in effect, but to speak their language properly. The end and use of morality being to direct our lives, and by showing us what actions are good, and what bad, prepare us to do the one and avoid the other; those that pretend to teach morals mistake their business, and become only language-masters where they do not do this,-when they teach us only to talk and dispute, and call actions by the names they prescribe, when they do not show the inferments that may draw us to virtue and deter us from vice.
Moral actions are only those that depend upon the choice of an understanding and free agent. And an understanding free agent naturally follows that which causes pleasure to it and flies that which causes pain; i. e. naturally seeks happiness and shuns misery. That, then, which causes to any one pleasure, that is good to him;
and that which causes him pain, is bad to him: and that which causes the greater pleasure is the greater good, and that which causes the greater pain, the greater evil. For happiness and misery consisting only in pleasure and pain, either of mind or body, or both, according to the interpretation I have given above of those words, nothing can be good or bad to any one but as it tends to their happiness or misery, as it serves to produce in them pleasure or pain: for good and bad, being relative terms, do not denote anything in the nature of the thing, but only the relation it bears to another in its aptness and tendency to produce in it pleasure or pain; and thus we see and say, that which is good for one man is bad for another.
- Now, though it be not so apprehended generally, yet it is from this tendency to produce to us pleasure or pain, that moral good or evil has its name, as well as natural. Yet perhaps it will not be found so erroneous as perhaps at first sight it will seem strange, if one should affirm, that there is nothing morally good which does not produce pleasure to a man, nor nothing morally evil that does not bring pain to him.
The difference between moral and natural good and evil is only this; that we call that naturally good and evil, which, by the natural efficiency of the thing, produces pleasure or pain in us; and that is morally good or evil which, by the intervention of the will of an intelligent free agent, draws pleasure or pain after it, not by any natural consequence, but by the intervention of that power. Thus, drinking to excess, when it produces the head-ache or sickness, is a natural evil; but as it is a transgression of law, by which a punishment is annexed to it, it is a moral evil. For rewards and punishments are the good and evil whereby superiors enforce the observance of their laws; it being impossible to set any other motive or restraint to the actions of a free understanding agent, but the consideration of good or evil; that is, pleasure or pain that will follow from it.
- Whoever treats of morality so as to give us only the definitions of justice and temperance, theft and incontinency, and tells us which are virtues, which are vices, does only settle certain complex ideas of modes with their names to them, whereby we may learn to understand others well, when they talk by their rules, and speak intelligibly and properly to others who have been informed in their doctrine. But whilst they discourse ever so acutely of temperance or justice, but show no law of a superior that prescribes temperance, to the observation or breach of which law there are rewards and punishments annexed, the force of morality is lost,
and evaporates only into words, disputes, and niceties. And, however Aristotle or Anacharsis, Confucius, or any one amongst us, shall name this or that action a virtue or a vice, their authorities are all of them alike, and they exercise but what power everyone has, which is to show what complex ideas their words shall stand for: for without showing a law that commands or forbids them, moral goodness will be but an empty sound, and those actions which the schools here call virtues or vices, may by the same authority be called by contrary names in another country; and if these be nothing more than their decisions and determinations in the case, they will be still nevertheless indifferent as to any man's practice, which will by such kind of determinations be under no obligation to observe them.
- But there is another sort of morality or rules of our actions, which though they may in many parts be coincident and agreeable with the former, yet have a different foundation, and we come to the knowledge of them a different way; those notions or standards of our actions not being ideas of our own making,
to which we give names, but depend upon something without us, and so not made by us, but for us, and these are the rules set to our actions by the declared will or laws of another, who hath power to punish our aberrations;-these are properly and truly the rules of good and evil, because the conformity or disagreement of our actions with these bring upon us good or evil; these influence our lives as the other do our words, and there is as much difference between these two as between living well and attaining happiness on the one hand, compared with speaking properly and understanding of words on the other.
The notion of one men have by making to themselves a collection of simple ideas, called by those names which they take to be names of virtues and vices; the notion of the other we come by from the rules set us by a superior power: but because we cannot come to the knowledge of those rules without, 1st, making known a lawgiver to all mankind, with power and will to reward and punish; and, 2nd, without showing how he hath declared his will and law, I must only at present suppose this rule, till a fit place to speak of these, viz. God and the law of nature; and only at present mention what is immediately to the purpose in hand, 1st, that this rule of our actions set us by our law-maker is conversant about, and ultimately terminates in, those simple ideas before mentioned; viz. Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself.
2nd., That the law being known, or supposed known by us, the relation of our actions to it, i.e. the agreement or disagreement of anything we do to that rule, is as easy and clearly known as any other relation. 3rd. That we have moral ideas as well as others, that we come by them the same way, and that they are nothing but collections of simple ideas. Only we are carefully to retain that distinction of moral actions, that they have a double consideration, 1st, As they have their proper denominations, as liberality, modesty, frugality, &c. &c., and thus they are but modes, i. e. actions made up of such a precise collection of simple ideas; but it is not thereby determined that they are either good or bad, virtues or vices. 2nd, As they refer to a law with which they agree or disagree,
so are they good or bad, virtues or vices. Eutrapelia was a name amongst the Greeks, of such a peculiar sort of actions; i. e. of such a collection of simple ideas concurring to make them up; but whether this collection of simple ideas, called Eutrapelia, be a virtue or vice, is known only by comparing it to that rule which determines virtue or vice, and this is that consideration that properly belongs to actions, i. e. their agreement with a rule. In one, any action is only a collection of simple ideas, and so is a positive complex idea; in the other it stands in relation to a law or rule, and according as it agrees or disagrees, is virtue or vice. So education and piety, feasting and gluttony, are modes alike, being but certain complex ideas called by one name: but when they are considered as virtues and vices, and rules of life carrying an obligation with them, they relate to a law, and so come under the consideration of relation.
To establish morality, therefore, upon its proper basis, and such foundations as may carry an obligation with them, we must first prove a law, which always supposes a law-maker: one that has a superiority and right to ordain, and also a power to reward and punish according to the tenor of the law established by him. This sovereign law-maker, who has set rules and bounds to the actions of men, is God, their Maker, whose existence we have already proved. The next thing then to show is, that there are certain rules, certain dictates, which it is his will all men should conform their actions to, and that this will of his is sufficiently promulgated and made known to all mankind.
DEUS.-Descartes's Proof of a God, from the Idea of necessary Existence, examined. 1696.
Though I had heard Descartes's opinion concerning the being of a God often questioned by sober men, and no enemies to his name, yet I suspended my judgment of him, till lately setting myself to examine his proof of a God, I found that by it senseless matter might be the first eternal being and cause of all things, as well as an immaterial intelligent spirit; this, joined to his shutting out the consideration of final causes out of his philosophy, and his labouring to invalidate all other proofs of a God but his own, does unavoidably draw upon him some suspicion.
The fallacy of his pretended great proof of a Deity appears to me thus:-The question between the Theists and Atheists I take to be this, viz. not whether there has been nothing from eternity, but whether the eternal Being that made, and still keeps all things in that order, beauty, and method, in which we see them, be a knowing immaterial substance, or a senseless material substance; for that something, either senseless matter, or a knowing spirit, has been from eternity, I think nobody doubts.
The idea of the Theists' eternal Being is, that it is a knowing immaterial substance, that made and still keeps all the beings of the universe in that order in which they are preserved. The idea of the Atheists' eternal Being is senseless matter.
The question between them then is, which of these really is that eternal Being that has always been. Now I say, whoever will use the idea of necessary existence to prove a God, i. e. an immaterial eternal knowing spirit, will have no more to say for it from the idea of necessary existence, than an Atheist has for his eternal, all-doing, senseless matter, v. g. The complex idea of God, says the Theist, is substance, immateriality, eternity, knowledge, and the power of making and producing all things.
I allow it, says the Atheist; but how do you prove any real being exists, answering the complex idea in which these simple ideas are combined? By another idea, says the Cartesian Theist, which I include in my complex idea of God, viz. the idea of necessary existence.
If that will do, says the Atheist, I can equally prove the eternal existence of my first being, matter; for it is but adding the idea of necessary existence to the one which I have wherein substance, extension, solidity, eternity, and the power of making and producing all things are combined, and my eternal matter is proved necessarily to exist upon as certain grounds as the immaterial God; for whatsoever is eternal must needs have necessary existence included in it. And who now has the odds in proving by adding in his mind the idea of necessary existence to his idea of the first being? The truth is in this way, that which should be proved, viz. existence, is supposed, and so the question is only begged on both sides.
I have the complex idea of substance, solidity, and extension joined together, which I call matter; does this prove matter to be? No. I, with Descartes, add to this idea of matter a bulk as large as space itself; does this prove such a bulk of matter to be? No. I add to it this complex idea, the idea of eternity; does this prove matter to be eternal? No. I add to it the idea of necessary existence; does this prove matter necessarily to exist? No.
Try it in spirit, and it will be just so there. The reason whereof is, that the putting together or separating, the putting in or leaving out, any one or more ideas, out of any complex one in my head, has no influence at all upon the being of things, without me to make them exist so, as I put ideas together in my mind.
But it will be said that the idea of God includes necessary existence, and so God has a necessary existence.
I answer: The idea of God, as far as the name God stands for the first eternal cause, includes necessary existence.
And so far the Atheist and the Theist are agreed; or rather, there is no Atheist who denies an eternal first Being, which has necessary existence. That which puts the difference between the Theist and the Atheist is this: that the Theist says that this eternal Being, which has necessary existence, is a knowing spirit; the Atheist, that it is blind unthinking matter; for the deciding of which question, the joining the idea of necessary existence to that of eternal first Being or Substance, does nothing. Whether that eternal first Being, necessarily existing, be material or immaterial, thinking or not thinking,
must be proved some other way; and when thus a God is proved, necessary existence will be included in the idea of God, and not till then. For an eternal necessary existing Being, material, and without wisdom, is not the Theist's God. So that real existence is but supposed on either side; and the adding in our thoughts the idea of necessary existence to an idea of a senseless material substance, or to the idea of an immaterial knowing spirit, makes neither of them to exist, nor alters anything in the reality of their existence, because our ideas alter nothing in the reality of things, v. g. The Atheist would put into his idea of matter, necessary existence; he may do that as he pleases, but he will not thereby at all prove the real existence of anything answering that idea; he must first prove,
and that by other ways than that idea, the existence of an eternal all-doing matter, and then his idea will be proved evidently a true idea: till then it is but a precarious one, made at pleasure, and proves nothing of real existence, for the reason above mentioned, viz. our ideas make or alter nothing in the real existence of things, nor will it follow that anything really exists in nature answering it, because we can make such a complex idea in our minds.
By ideas in the mind we discern the agreement or disagreement of ideas that have a like ideal existence in our minds, but that reaches no further, proves no real existence, for the truth we so know is only of our ideas, and is applicable to things only as they are supposed to exist answering such ideas. But any idea, simple or complex, barely by being in our minds, is no evidence of the real existence of anything out of our minds, answering that idea. Real existence can be proved only by real existence; and, therefore, the real existence of a God can only be proved by the real existence of other things. The real existence of other things without us can be evidenced to us only by our senses; but our own existence is known to us by a certainty yet higher than our senses can give us of the existence of other things, and that is internal perception, a self-consciousness, or intuition; from whence therefore may be drawn, by a train of ideas, the surest and most incontestable proof of the existence of a God.