Page images
PDF
EPUB

stands in the foremost rank of the argument, and claims all the respect and honour due to an axiom, is often to grant to the constructor of a theory all that he wishes and requires. The grand postulatum admitted, one doctrine follows another in regular systematic order; and conclusions, however unexpected and alarming, obtrude themselves as most fairly and legitimately deduced. It was suspected by the ingenious author of the • Examination' before us, that this was the case with the New System of Morals which Mr. Godwin has offered to the public in his « Enquiry concerning Political Justice ;” and we are of opinion that he has justified his suspicions, by detecting the sophistry which lurks in that performance.

• My sole wish' (says this author in his Advertisement) is to expose in its elements, and while it may yet avail, a system of ethics which has long, in its principle at least, been stealing into favour; and which in its certain tendency to undermine the foundation of whatever is excellent or valuable in the human heart, is exactly adapted to qualify us for either of the two descriptions of character which form the shame and scourge of the age for the unprincipled and obsequious tool of political corruption, on the one hand, and the vain despe, rate votaries of political empiricism, on the other.'

Apprehensions more terrific than the case itself justifies may, perhaps, be entertained by this gentleman, in contemtemplating the Godwinean system; he may imagine it to be more stealing into favour than it really is, for we are of opinion that it does too great violence to the principles and affections of human nature ever to be current; yet it comes in “ so questionable a shape," that it demands examination, and he who ably refutes it must be allowed to have rendered service to the cause of morals.

We should be sorry, therefore, to be thought to give cold and stinted praise to the author of these pages, for the pains which he has taken to place this theory in its true light. He has, we think, “ laid the axe to the root of the tree;" -he has exposed it in its elements; and he has evinced its foundation. principle to be erroneous.

Mr. Godwin's radical position is,

• That we are bound in justice to do all the good we can, and that all moral duty therefore is comprised in Justice. It is just to do allthe good we can ; it is unjust not to do all the good we can. Being bound in justice to do all the good we possibly can, the only just motive for preferring either our own good to that of others, or of other persons, the good of any one individual to that of any other, must be a sense of the superior quantity of good which that indivi. dual, whether it be ourselves or another, is capable of producing; because, by pursuing this plan only, can we produce all the possible good in our power; whatever therefore leads us to prefer either our.'

[merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors]

selves

1

selves or others upon a different acconnt, is immoral and unjust. To cxecute this grand design of producing all the good in our power, by ourselves or through others, we must be perfectly free from restraint, too, as well as bias; all promises, oaths, contracts, &c.—whatever blindly determines us to act in any definite way-should not be al. lowed therefore, or not regarded: if they do not lead us to deviate from the only right line of conduct-that of producing all the good possible they are useless ; if they do, they are immoral and unjust. Besides a freedom from restraint and bias, a knowledge of truth, also, is necessary to enable us to be just: truth therefore should at all times and under all circunstances be spoken; and secresy, prudential reserve, delicate concealment, &c. should have no place in the world. The moral as well as physical order of things being equally governed by necessity, virtue can be approved only on the same principle that we approve a fertile yale ; and vice disapproved, as we disapprove an infectious distemper; as the cause of good, and as the cause of evil: rewards and punishments must be regarded only as a means, and that an irrational one, of reforming error, which can be effectually cured only by an infusion of truth; and resentment, remorse, and affliction for past events, must be extinguished from the face of the earth. In fine, the truly wise and just man will be actuated neither by interest nor ambition, the love of honour, the desire of fame, nor emulation; the good of the whole will be his only object; this good he will incessantly pursue, and the pursuit of it will constitute his happiness, a happiness, which nothing but bodily pain, and scarcely that, can disturb

• If we are bound in Justice to do all the good in our power, to produce the greatest sum of happiness in sentient nature, which it is within the compass of our faculties to effect-Then, doubtless, Jus, tice being altogether an inflexible duty, admitting no dispensation, no remission, no, not for a moment, our whole mind must be solely directed to this single purpose ; and the desire to effect it, must constitute the only legitimate motive of human action. Then whatever leads us to act upon any other incitement, or with any other view, must be extirpated or subdued, as revolting against the rules of Justice. Then every passion and cmotion of the human heart must be extin. guislied as abhorrent to our duty; it being in the essence of all affeca, tions of this kind to prompt us to act upon particular motives, sometimes not apparently conducive to the general good, and never certainly grounded upon it. Then patriotism, friendship, gratitude, affection, pity, all the public and private virtues, all the social and domestic charities, which have hitherto been considered as the best blessings and surest hope, as well as the grace and ornament of our nature, must be effectually rooted from our feelings, as creating an unjust preference in favour of certain individuals, or descriptions of individuals, independently of their disposition and their power to cooperate with us in promoting the general good. Then whatever obstructs us in the pursuit of this good, is an abat eable nuisance. All

« * See Pol. Jus. 4to edit. passim ; and particularly B. 2. c. 2. and 6o ; B. 3. c. 3. ; B. 4. C. 4, 5, 6. ; B. 6..c. 5.; B. 7. and 8.'

dctcrminate

determinate rules are blind restrictions. All legal property is invo terate injustice : I have a right to just as 'much as I conceive will best enable me to accomplish my grand project; and nobody has a right to any other portion, upon any other title. All law is usurpation upon reason: all judicious process, fetters and oppression : prevailing sentiments and manners, antiquated prejudice. If we accept the prin. ciple, we must take the consequences--they are potentially included.'

Having thus exhibited an outline of the system in its ele. ments and corollaries, the examiner thus proceeds to refute it :

What (says he) does this axiom, viz. “ that we are bound in justice to do all the good we can,"assume? It takes for granted, and it is the only circunstance which gives the colour of plausibility to the position, that because the end of virtue is the general good (as it is undoubtedly, and of every other principle moulded into the composition of physical and moral nature) that it is its tendency to ihis end, which determines us to distinguish it as virtue; that because the final cause of moral distinction is utility, that utility must be its proximate cause also ;-an assumption, which, without any sort of internal evidence in its favour, (as an abstract proposition it is impossible that it should have any,) is directly controverted by the very proof which we should naturally expect to find adduced in its support--the presumptions, I mean, and sometimes very strong oncs, which may be drawn from analogy. We are actuated to va. rious ends by various principles ; by more perhaps than a superficial observer will suppose or allow. After a pretty careful review of this subject-it is one of the most curious and instructive in the circle of contemplative enquiry-I may venture to affirm that there is no single instance, no, not the minutest, in the whole moral æconomy of man, in which the end to be attained, is, as this axiom presumes, the mo. tive appointed to attain it. Let us take the most fa:niliar cases that can occur. The end of eating and drinking is the sustenance of our bodies; do we eat and drink for that purpose? The end of the union of the sexes is the propagation of the species; do we unite with that view? The end of parental affection is the preservation of helpless infancy; do we love our children on that account? The ultimate end here, too, is the general good ; does it form any part of the incitement ?

• If it is the utility of an action which constitutes it virtuous, we must all be conscious of it.

It is absolutely impossible that we should be mistaken in our feelings, however we may be misled in our reasonings about them. Turn then to the writers who speak the languageof nature and truth, the poets and orators of all ages. Are the virrues they celebrate ever ascribed to this motive, are they ever exalted in this view, are they ever recommended on this principle? Nothing less. Look into the liistorians; they express exactly the same sentiments. The deaths of Socrates and Seneca were worthy of theirlives; and shed, beyond all question, a ray of interest over their course, which the highest noon of their ascendant never equalled: What apparent connection is there between the unshaken fortitude and philosophic calmness which overpower us with awful admiration in the dying moments of these great teachers of morality, and the general happiness of mankind ? actions which affect this happiness much more directly, their tendency to promote it, seems to constitute no ingredient in the motive of the agent, or the approbation of the spectator.'

Herein our author follows Bp. Butler; who cautions his readers ; Dissertation on the Nature of Virtue,' subjoined to his Analogy) “ against imagining the whole of virtue to consist in singly aiming, according to the best of their judgment, at promoting the Happiness of Mankind in the present state.”

If we be not to act till we have ascertained the greatest possible good that we may produce, there could be no acting at all. To require so vast a motive as the proximate cause of our conduct, or as the primum micbile of virtue, is to require too much of man as a moral agent. Universal benevolence is an amiable sentiment, but it cannot govern every spring of individual action. The mother will not suckle and protect her child, nor the farmer house his corn, from the sole motive of the general good. Man is so constituted, that individual affections first touch his soul, which by degrees are brought to expand themselves into social regard : but Mr. Godwin would invert the order of nature, or rather completely subvert it, by making the social principle of General Happiness obliterate in us all individual affections. The mind is to be so expanded with the sublime and glorious idea of Universal Good, that self-love is to be annihilated and forgotten. This is utterly impossible. There is not, therefore, in this theory, any fitness for the Being to whom it is with so much formality proposed. Let us, however, follow the Examiner in his farther exposition of the Godwinean theory : Let us see to what it leads.'

• I am bound to produce all the good in my power. I am bound then to act upon this principle only, to have this object perpetually before me, and to pursue it with all the faculties I possess. I am bound, of course, to discard every other principle of action as immoral and unjust, and to extinguish or subdue, as much as in me lays, every passion and instinct of my nature, to make way for the operation of this grand precept. I must not till my farm, nor marry a wife, nor rear my children, from the common motives of profit, love, or affection, but from a conviction that by so acting I shall best promote the general good. For how can I promote that good to the utmost of my power, unless in cach particular act, at each partie cular moment, I do my utmost to promote it? And how can I be said to promote it at all, unless I act with that design ? Since as to any good that may casually result from my conduct (and casually it must result if I act from any other motive), I can no more be said to have produced it, than I can be affirmed to have saved the life which my posthumous son saved, because I begot him. Morality, on this scheme, is not an occasional alterative, but our constant diet. I must not stir a step, but from a conviction, that, of all the pos. sible modes of action, it is the one most conducive to the general welfare.' 9

This,

a

[ocr errors]

This, however, as our ingenious Examiner observes, is to invert the natural series, to transform the last and remotest extension of our regards into the original spring from which we are to derive all others.'

It is a suflicient refutation of the theory so ably combated by our Examiner, to pourtray the Being whom it would produce as a model of political perfection.

" What should we think of an aniin.al in any of these shapes, or in the shape of man, whom no intimacy could endear, no kindness attach, no misery move, no injuries provoke, no beauty charm, no wit exhilirate; whose cold heart no sorrows could thaw, no festivity warm ; but who pursued, with inflexible perseverance, some abstract idea of the general good ; dead to the glow of virtue ; dead to the shame of vice; and calculating the degrees of rectitude, of posthumous advantage over present suffering, by De Moivre upon chances?"

• But the general welfare or the general good, after all, is but an aggregate of individual good ; and our capacity to suffer and enjoy, remains precisely as it was. Mr. Godwin furnishes us with no sixth sense; he

opens no new inlet to gratification; he discovers no terra eustralis of delight, physical, or moral, present or to come. All things stand exactly as they were ; except, that instead of each man's providing for himself, he is to purvey for others ; every body is to busy himself in every body's business but his own ; every body is to ineddle in every thing but what he is competent to manage ; all are to cater, and none to consume; and in the mortification, confusion, perplexity, distrust, and despair, of each individual, is to consist universal confidence, peace, plenty, security, and happiness.'

The author makes the original sin of the whole theory to consist in considering, as the result of reason, an effect which it is not in the competence of reason to produce'; and he very properly reprobates the Universal Despotism, and even intolerance, at which the system laid down by Mr. Godwin aspires. Our moral sentiments, he remarks, are original principles of action. Hence 'we do not merely believe an action to be of a certain description called moral or immoral, we approve or disapprove it as such ; and this sentiment of approbation or disapprobation has a positive influence on human conduct.'-In his theory of Moral Sentiments, the Examiner professes to follow the celebrated Adam Smith ; and in exposing the fallacy of the Godwinean theory, he observes that by placing virtue in utility it fresumes on a general affection for the general good.

Thus have we, as far as our limits would allow, given various specimens of the close reasoning and ingenuity manifested in this Examination ;-sufficient to prove that the subject has been deeply considered by the author, and that his pamphlet deserves to be read by all who have been invited to the perusal of Mr. Godwin's “ Political Justice.”

« PreviousContinue »