General rules of conduct, prescribed by reason. Of the nature and first foundations of obligation.

I. IT is already a great point gained, to have discovered the primitive rule of human actions, and to know this faithful guide, which is to direct the steps of man, and whose directions and counsels he may follow with an intire confidence. But let us not stop here; and, since experience informs us, that we are frequently mistaken in our judgments concerning good and evil, and that these erroneous judgments throw us into most dangerous irregularities, let us consult therefore our guide, and learn which are the characters of real good and evil, in order to know in what true felicity consists, and what road we are to take in order to attain it.

II. Though the general notion of good and evil be fixed in itself, and invariable, still there are various sorts of particular goods and evils, or of things, that pass for such in the minds of men.

1. The first counsel therefore, that reason gives us, is to examine well into the nature of good and evil, and to observe carefully their several differences, in order to set upon each thing its proper value.

This distinction is easily made. A very slight attention to what we continually experience informs us, that, man being composed of body and soul, there are consequently two sorts of goods and evils, spiritual and corporeal. The first are those, that proceed only from our thoughts; the second arise from the impressions of external objects on our senses. Thus, the sensible pleasure, resulting from the discovery of an important truth, or the self approbation, arising from a consciousness of having discharged our duty, &c. are goods purely spiritual; as the chagrin of a geometrician for being unable to find out a demonstration, or the remorse a person feels for having committed a bad action, &c. are mere spiritual pains. With regard to corporeal goods and evils, they are sufficiently known; on one side, they are health, strength, beauty; on the other, sickness, weakness, pain, &c. These two sorts of goods and evils are interesting to man, and cannot be reckoned indifferent, by reason that, man being composed of body and soul, it is plain his perfection and happiness depend on the good state of these two parts.

2. We likewise observe, that appearances frequently deceive us, and what at first sight carries with it the face of good proves to be a real evil, whilst an apparent evil oftentimes conceals an extraordinary good. We should therefore make a distinction between real goods and evils, and those, that are false and apparent. Or, which amounts to pretty near the same thing, there is sometimes a pure good and a pure evil, and sometimes there is a mixture of both, which does not obstruct our discerning what part it is, that prevails, and whether the good or evil be predominant.

3. A third difference regards their duration. In this respect goods and evils have not all the same nature; some are solid and durable, others transitory and inconstant. Whereto we may add, that there are goods and evils of which we are masters, as it were, and which depend in such a manner on ourselves, that we are able to fix the one, in order to have a constant enjoyment of them, and to shun or get rid of the others. But they are not all of this kind; some goods there are, that escape our most eager pursuits, whilst some evils overtake us, notwithstanding our most solicitous efforts to avoid them.

4. There are at present goods and evils, which we actually feel; and future goods and evils, which are the objects of our hopes or fears.

5. There are particular goods and evils, which affect only some individuals; and others, that are common and universal, of which all the members of the society partake. The good of the whole is the real good; that of one of the parts, opposite to the good of the whole, is only an apparent good, and consequently a real evil.

6. From all these remarks we may in fine conclude, that, goods and evils not being all of the same species, there are consequently some differences amongst them, and that, compared together, we find there are some goods more excellent than others, and evils more or less incommodious. It happens likewise, that a good compared with an evil, may be either equal, or greater, or less; whence several differences or gradations arise, that are worthy of special notice.

These particulars are sufficient to show the utility of the principal rule, we have given, and how essential it is to our happiness to make a just distinction of goods and evils. But this is not the only counsel, that reason gives us; we are going to point out some others, that are not of less importance.

III. 2. True happiness cannot consist in things, that are inconsistent with the nature and state of man. This is another principle, which naturally flows, from the very notion of good and evil. For whatsoever is inconsistent with the nature of a being tends for this very reason to degrade or destroy it, to corrupt or alter its constitution; which, being directly opposite to the preservation, perfection, and good of this being, subverts the foundation of its felicity. Wherefore, reason being the noblest part of man, and constituting his principal essence, whatever is inconsistent with reason cannot form his happiness. To which I add, that whatever is incompatible with the state of man cannot contribute to his felicity; and this is a point as clear, as evidence can make it. Every being, that by its constitution has essential relations to other beings, which it cannot shake off, ought not to be considered merely as to itself, but as constituting a part of the whole, to which it is related. And it is sufficiently manifest, that it is on its situation in regard to the beings that surround it, and on the relations of agreement or opposition it has with them, that its good or bad state, its happiness or misery, must in a great measure depend.

IV. 3. In order procure for ourselves a solid happiness, it is not sufficient to be attentive to the present good and evil, we must likewise examine their natural consequences, to the end that, comparing the present with the future, and balancing one with the other, we may know beforehand what must be the natural result.

4. It is therefore contrary to reason, to pursue a good, that must certainly be attended with a more considerable evil.[1]

5. But, on the contrary, nothing is more reasonable than to resolve to bear with an evil, from which a greater good must certainly arise.

The truth and importance of these maxims are selfobvious. Good and evil being two opposites, the effect of one destroys that of the other; that is to say, the possession of a good, attended with a greater evil, renders us really unhappy; and, on the contrary, a slight evil, which procures us a more considerable good, does not hinder us from being happy. Wherefore, every thing well considered, the first ought to be avoided, as a real evil, and the second should be courted, as a real good.

The nature of human things requires us to be attentive to these principles. Were each of our actions restrained in such a manner, and limited within itself, as not to be attended with any consequence, we should not be so often mistaken in our choice, but should be almost sure of grasping the good. But, informed as we are by experience, that things have frequently very different effects, from what they seemed to promise, insomuch that the most pleasing objects are attended with bitter consequences, and on the contrary a real and solid good is purchased with labour and pains, prudence does not allow us to fix our whole attention on the present. We should extend our views to futurity, and equally weigh and consider the one and the other, in order to pass a solid judgment on them, a judgment sufficient to fix properly our resolutions.

V. 6. For the same reason, we ought to prefer a greater to a less good; we ought always to aspire to the noblest goods, that suit us, and proportion our desires and pursuits to the nature and merit of each good. This rule is so evident, that it would be losing time to pretend to prove it.

VI. 7. It is not necessary to have an entire certainty in regard to considerable goods and evils; mere possibility, and much more so probability, is sufficient to induce a reasonable person to deprive himself of some trifling good, and even to suffer some slight evil, with a design of acquiring a far greater good, and avoiding a more troublesome evil.

This rule is a consequence of the foregoing ones; and we may affirm, that the ordinary conduct of men shows, they are Sensibly convinced of the prudence and necessity thereof. In effect, what is the aim of all this tumult of business, into which they hurry themselves? To what end and purpose are all the labors they undertake, all the pains and fatigues they endure, all the perils, to which they constantly expose themselves? Their intent is to acquire some advantages, which they imagine they do not purchase too dear; though these advantages are neither present, nor so certain, as the sacrifices, they must make in order to obtain them.

This is a very rational manner of acting. Reason requires, that, in default of certainty, we should take up with probability, as the rule of our judgment and determination; for probability in that case is the only light and guide we have. And, Unless it is more eligible to wander in uncertainty, than to follow a guide; unless we are of opinion, that our lamp ought to be extinguished, when we are deprived of the light of the sun; it is reasonable to be directed by probability, when we are incapable of coming at evidence. It is easier to attain our aim by help of a faint or glimmering light, than by continuing in darkness.[2]

VII. 8. We should be solicitous to acquire a taste for true goods, insomuch that goods of an excellent nature, and acknowedged as such, should excite our desires, and induce us to make all the efforts, necessary for getting them into our possession.

This last rule is a natural consequence of the others, ascertaining their execution and effects. It is not sufficient to have enlightened the mind in respect to the nature of these goods and evils, that are capable of rendering us really happy or unhappy; we should likewise give activity and efficacy to these principles, by forming the will so, as to determine itself by taste and habit, pursuant to the counsels of enlightened reason. And let no one think it impossible to change our inclinations, or to reform our tastes. It is with the taste of the mind, as with that of the palate. Experience shows, that we may alter both, so as to find pleasure at length in things, that before were disagreeable to us. We begin to do a thing with pain, and by an effort of reason; afterwards we familiarize ourselves to it by degrees; then a frequency of acts renders it easier to us, the repugnance ceases, we view the thing in a different light from what we did before; and use at length makes us love a thing, that before was the object of our aversion. Such is the power of habit; it makes us insensibly feel so much ease and satisfaction in what we are accustomed to, that we find it difficult afterwards to abstain from it.

VIII. These are the principal counsels, we receive from reason. They are in some measure a system of maxims, which, drawn from the nature of things, and particularly from the nature and state of man, acquaint us with what is essentially suitable to him, and include the most necessary rules for his perfection and happiness.

These general principles are of such a nature, as to force, as it were, our assent; insomuch that a clear and cool understanding, disengaged from the prejudice and tumult of passions, cannot help acknowledging their truth and prudence. Every one sees how useful it would be to man to have these principles present always in his mind, that by the application and use of them in particular cases, they may insensibly become the uniform and constant rule of his inclinations and conduct.

Maxims in fact, like these, are not mere speculations; they should naturally influence our morals, and be of service to us in practical life. For to what purpose would it be to listen to the advise of reason, unless we intended to follow it? Of what signification are those rules of conduct, which manifestly appear to us good and useful, if we refuse to conform to them? We ourselves are sensible, that this light was given us to regulate our steps and motions. If we deviate from these maxims, we inwardly disapprove and condemn ourselves, as we are apt to condemn any other person in a similar case. But if we happen to conform to these maxims, it is a subject of internal satisfaction, and we commend ourselves, as we commend others, who have acted after this manner. These sentiments are so very natural, that it is not in our power to think otherwise. We are forced to respect these principles, as a rule agreeable to our nature, and on which our felicity depends.

IX. This agreeableness sufficiently known implies a necessity of squaring our conduct by it. When we mention necessity, it is plain we do not mean a physical, but moral necessity, consisting in the impression, made on us by some particular motives, which determine us to act after a certain manner, and do not permit us to act rationally the opposite way.

Finding ourselves in these circumstances, we say we are under an obligation of doing or omitting a certain thing; that is, we are determined to it by solid reasons, and engaged by cogent motives, which, like so many ties, draw our will to that side. It is in this sense a person says he is obliged. For, whether we are determined by popular opinion, or whether we are directed by civilians and ethic writers, we find that the one and the other make obligation properly consist in a reason, which, being well understood and approved, determines us absolutely to act after a certain manner preferable to another, Hence it follows, that the whole force of this obligation depends on the judgment, by which we approve or condemn a particular manner of acting. For to approve is acknowledging we ought to do a thing; and to condemn is owning we ought not to do it. Now ought and to be obliged are synonymous terms.

We have already hinted at the natural analogy between the proper and literal sense of the word obliged, and the figurative signification of this same term. Obligation properly denotes a tie;[3] a man obliged is therefore a person, who is tied. And as a man, bound with cords or chains, cannot move or act with liberty, so it is very near the same case with a person, who is obliged; with this difference, that, in the first case, it is an external and physical impediment, which prevents the effect of one's natural strength; but in the second, it is only a moral tie; that is, the subjection of liberty is produced by reason, which, being the primitive rule of man and his faculties, directs and necessarily modifies his operations in a manner suitable to the end, it proposed.

We may therefore define obligation, considered in general and in its first origin, a restriction of natural liberty, produced by reason; inasmuch as the counsels, which reason gives us, are so many motives, that determine man to act after a certain manner, preferable to another.

X. Such is the nature of primitive and original obligation, From this it follows, that this obligation may be more or less strong, more or less rigorous; according as the reasons, that establish it, have more or less weight, and consequently as the motives, thence resulting, have more or less impression on the will. For manifest it is, that the more these motives are cogent and efficacious, the more the necessity of conforming our actions to them becomes strong and indispensible.

XI. I am not ignorant, that this explication of the nature and origin of obligation is far from being adopted by all civilians and ethic writers. Some pretend,[4] that the natural fitness or unfitness, which we acknowledge in certain actions, is the true and original foundation of all obligation; that virtue has an intrinsic beauty, which renders it amiable of itself, and that vice on the contrary is attended with an intrinsic deformity, which ought to make us detest it; and this antecedent to and independent of the good and evil, of the rewards and punishments, which may arise from the practice of either.

But this opinion methinks can be supported no farther, than it is reduced to that, which we have just now explained. For to say that virtue has of itself a natural beauty, which renders it worthy of our love, and that vice, on the contrary, merits our aversion, is not this acknowledging, in fact, that we have reason to prefer one to the other? Now, whatever this reason be, it certainly can never become a motive capable of determining the will, but inasmuch as it presents to us some good to acquire, or tends to make us avoid some evil; in short, only as it is able to contribute to our satisfaction, and place us in a state of tranquillity and happiness. Thus it is ordained by the very constitution of man, and the nature of human will. For, as good in general is the object of the will, the only motive, capable of setting it in motion, or of determining it to one side preferable to another, is the hope of obtaining this good. To abstract therefore from all interest in respect to man is depriving him of all motive of acting, that is, reducing him to a state of inaction and indifference. Besides, what idea should we be able to form of the agreeableness or disagreeableness of human actions, of their beauty or turpitude, of their proportion or irregularity, were not all this referred to man himself, and to what his destination, his perfection, his welfare, and in short his true felicity requires?

XII. Most civilians are of a different opinion from that of Dr. Clark. "They establish, as a principle of obligation, properly so called, the will of a superior being, on whom dependence is acknowledged. They pretend there is nothing but this will, or the orders of a being of this kind, that can bridle our liberty, or prescribe particular rules to our actions. They add, that neither the relations of proportion nor disagreement, which we acknowledge in the things themselves, nor the approbation they receive from reason, lay us under an indispensibie necessity of following those ideas, as the rules of our conduct. That, our reason being in reality nothing else but ourselves, nobody, properly speaking, can lay himself under an obligation. Hence they conclude, that the maxims of reason, considered in themselves, and independent of the will of a superior, have nothing obligatory in their nature."[5]

This manner of explaining the nature, and laying the foundation of obligation, appears to me insufficient, because it does not ascend to the original source, and real principles. True it is, that the will of a superior obliges those, who are his dependents; yet this will cannot have such an effect, but inasmuch as it meets with the approbation of our reason. For this purpose it is not only necessary, that the superior's will should contain nothing in itself opposite to the nature of man; but moreover it ought to be proportioned in such a manner to his constitution and ultimate end, that we cannot help acknowledging it, as the rule of our actions; insomuch that there is no neglecting it without falling into a dangerous error; and, on the contrary, the only means of obtaining our end is to be directed by it. Otherwise it is inconceivable how man can voluntarily submit to the orders of a superior, or determine willingly to obey him. Own indeed I must, that, according to the language of civilians, the idea of a superior, who commands, must intervene to establish an obligation, such as is commonly considered. But, unless we trace things higher, by grounding even the authority of this superior on the approbation, he receives from reason, it will produce only an external constraint, very different from obligation, which hath of itself a power of penetrating the will, and moving it by an inward sense; insomuch that man is of his own accord, and without any restraint or violence, inclined to obey.

XIII. From all these remarks we may conclude, that the differences between the principal systems, concerning the nature and origin of obligation, are not so great, as they appear at first sight. Were we to make a closer inquiry into these opinions, by ascending to their primitive sources, we should find, that these different ideas, reduced to their exact value, far from being opposite, agree very well together, and ought even to concur, in order to form a system, connected properly with all its essential parts, in relation to the nature and state of man. This is what we intend more particularly to perform hereafter.[6] It is proper at present to observe, that there are two sorts of obligations, one internal, and the other external. By internal obligation I understand that, which is produced only by our own reason, considered as the primitive rule of conduct, and in consequence of the good or evil the action in itself contains. By external obligation, we mean that, which arises from the will of a being, on whom we allow ourselves dependent, and who commands or prohibits some particular things, under a commination of punishment. Whereto we must add, that these two obligations, far from being opposite to each other, have, on the contrary, a perfect agreement. For as the external obligation is capable of giving a new force to the internal, so the whole force of the external obligation ultimately depends on the internal; and it is from the agreement and concurrence of these two obligations, that the highest degree of moral necessity arises, as also the strongest tie, or the properest motive to make impression on man, in order to determine him to pursue steadily and never to deviate from some fixt rules of conduct; in a word, by this it is, that the most perfect obligation is formed.

1. See the third note of Mons. Barbeyrac on the duties of man and a citizen, book i, chap. 1, § 11.

2. In the ordinary course of life, we are generally obliged to be determined by probability, for it is not always in our power to attain to a complete evidence. Seneca, the philosopher, has beautifully established and explained this maxim:

Huic respondebimus, nunquam expectare nos certissimam rerum comprehensionem; quoniam in arduo est veri exploratio; sed eâ ire, qua ducit veri similitudo. OMNE HAC VIA PROCEDIT OFFICIUM. Sic serimus, sic navigamus, sic militamus, sic uxores ducimus, sic liberos tollimus; quum omnium horum incertus sit eventus. Ad ea accedimus, de quibus bene sperandum esse credimas. Quis enim polliceatur serenti proventum, naviganti portum, militanti victoriam, marito pudicam uxorem, patri pios liberos? Sequimur quâ ratio, non qua veritas trahit. Exspecta, ut nisi bene cessura non facias, et nisi comperta veritate nihil moveris; relicto omni actu vita consistit. Dum versimilia me in hoc aut illud impellant, non verebor beneficium dart ei, quem versimile erit gratum esse." De Benefic. lib. 4. c. 33.

3. Obligatio a ligando.

4. See Dr. Clark on the evidence of natural and revealed religion.

5. See the judgment of an anonymous writer, &c. § 15. This is a small work of Mr. Leibnitz, on which Mr. Barbeyrac has made some remarks, and which is inserted in the fifth edition of his translation of the duties of man and citizen.

6. See the second part, chap. vi.

Next | Previous | Contents