On retiring to my chamber, reflecting on the discourse of my friend; I found my mind impressed with a pleasing satisfaction and composure, and, somewhat disburthened of that uncertainty and confusion which the arguments against innate principles produce in moral subjects. It is, certainly, highly inimical to the cause of virtue to introduce doubts concerning the existence of moral principles. If the mind do not perceive such principles to be fixed and general in human nature, and not ever fluctuating and varying according to times, circumstances, customs, fashions, and opinions, it cannot rationally depend upon any principles at all. It must remain ever perplexed and wavering, and utterly devoid of that stability and that mental determination which are the principal supports of all virtuous achievements. That manly firmness and constancy which is so necessary in all great and worthy designs, and which is the effect of a generous affection for truth and justice, requires steady and invariable principles to support it in us.
It should seem, therefore, much more consonant to the character of genuine philosophy to endeavor to strengthen and confirm the mind in just principles, than to puzzle and confound it with difficulties and vain objections. For though the human understanding may be, nay must be, incapable of solving many difficulties in the nature of things: yet to stick to those difficulties tenaciously and to apply them continually to prove the uncertainty of our knowledge and to leave us perplexed and confounded is doubtless but a very untoward, left-handed, kind of philosophy. In her genuine course, she leads us gently on as far as our understandings will carry us, and we can see our way clearly: when difficulties occur (and they must frequently occur in works formed by infinite wisdom when examined by such minds as ours) she shows us their nature and extent and explains them (if at all explicable) as well and as far as she can, continually keeping in view the nature of man and his true interest and proper business upon the earth.
In the morning I rose with the sun, and traversed the garden waiting with impatience the rising of my friend. It was not long (though I thought it so) before he came down and joined me, with a smile, in one of the walks. After taking a turn or two and discoursing lightly on the beauties of the objects around us, I reminded him of his promise, and of the subject with which he concluded his discourse the preceding evening.
Your demand is just, said he; and after musing a short time, he began thus:
In all subjects of reasoning, we can never be too careful in fixing the meaning of our words, especially of those words on a clear understanding of which the knowledge of the matter in question principally depends. We will therefore endeavor to explain our ideas of the word principles, as employed in our present inquiry, with as much precision as we can.
I humbly conceive, then, continued he, that no thing or being in the universe could possibly exist or be what it is without certain necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws; which together form and constitute its nature and cause it to be specifically what it is. These necessarily-inherent qualities, properties, energies, or laws whatever names they may be called by, are what I would now be understood to signify by the word principles, as being prime, or first, in the constituting of the natures of all things. Thus all the animal creation, all the vegetables, have their general, and their specific, principles. Earth, water, air, fire, have their principles. The Earth as a whole in itself, or, as a part in our planetary system, has its principles. Our planetary system as a whole, or, as relative to other systems, or to the universe, has its principles. The universe as a whole must also have its principles, by which all its parts are made relative and are chained and united together; although in a manner totally incomprehensible by any but its all-wise and all-powerful Creator. But of him, the great first cause! The principle of all principles! Of Him, from whom the whole universe and all that it contains derive their principles, what shall we say, or how speak, with propriety? So weak, so incompetent, or are we that we are lost in the contemplation of his nature, and hardly know how to discourse of him with tolerable sense or without absurdity and danger of impiety and profanation.
I bowed assentingly.
However, we may truly say, continued he, that with regard to the relation we stand in to God and to his concatenated creation we cannot possibly serve him better or render him juster worship than by paying the strictest attention to those innate principles with which he has endued our nature, and by which he has clearly pointed out (if we suffer not our attention to be diverted by false lights) our road to what is most eligible and best both in our moral and physical conduct in this life.
After a short pause, seeing me deeply engaged in reflection:
I speak of these things, said he, only to explain my meaning by the word principles in its most extensive sense: but with all due consciousness of human imbecility, when we presume to discourse concerning things of infinite extent. But I take such to be the notions we must naturally and do most usually entertain of the One general or universal principle whenever we think attentively or rationally about Him. Yet still we must observe that we are not capable of attaining any certain knowledge of the true nature of such a principle: we can only perceive it as a cause by the effects, but we know not how it causes.
He looked on me.
I do not object, said I.
Then we will descend a little, continued he, for our minds are better adapted to more confined views, and to the consideration of parts, than of the whole of the creation.
In nature, things are distinguished from each other and are arranged into kinds and species, and we do no more than follow her in so considering them. The general laws by which every kind exists and is moved and actuated are the general principles of that kind. The particular laws by which every species exists differently, and is moved and actuated differently from its kind, are its particular, or specific, principles. Thus every kind and species of beings have principles naturally inherent in them.
True, said I, but do we know what those principles are, or how they act in them, so as to produce the varieties which we see in their natures?
Perhaps not, replied he, for of the principles of beings without us, we can only judge by the perceptible effects which they exhibit: nor can their true internal nature and manner of acting be ever understood by us any farther than by conjecture from the effects they produce. Yet we are certain of the necessary existence of such principles and their natures as cause the production of such differences and distinctions as mark the various kinds and species. A further knowledge, it seems, was not designed for man: nor indeed does it appear to me that it would be either useful or convenient in our present state and short duration here: it would only draw us more from our true and proper business; from the study of ourselves and of the nature of our kind: from which we already find but too many frivolous occasions to wander. It has long been an applauded fashion to make collections and to roam abroad in search of rarities and monsters for others to gaze at, indulging a sort of idle industry in vain curiosity concerning things but little relative, or perhaps quite foreign, to our nature: and such trifling is dignified with the honorable names of learning and knowledge. So much engaged without doors, however, it cannot be but our affairs at home must suffer, and our most interesting concerns lie neglected. For though I do by no means agree with those who think the most difficult of all knowledge is the knowledge of ourselves, yet I am very certain that men whose minds are continually employed in extraneous subjects of science, or in those amusing external arts which are irrelative to moral life, are but very rarely even tolerable proficients in the home-science. Indeed, it is not to be expected that a man should be skillful in an art which he has never allowed himself time to think of or leisure to attend to.
I am very sensible of the fashionable folly, said I, and know very well at how cheap a rate literary distinctions are purchased; and I must agree with you that a mind much addicted to extraneous researches is not likely to be very well-informed at home: but I should be glad to know why you think the attainment of a knowledge of ourselves is less difficult than commonly imagined?
I do not think, replied he, that any kind of knowledge can be acquired without attention and study: but the knowledge we may attain of our own nature and principles is more clear and more certain, comes to us easier and with better evidence, than we can possibly acquire concerning the nature and principles of any other creatures. What man can doubt that it is more easy for him to know himself than it is for him to know any other man, or than it is for any other man to know him? If a man be incapable of knowing himself, a subject with which he is so intimately, so sensibly united; whose principles, sentiments, perceptions, thoughts, and designs he can always inspect and know without disguise whenever he pleases to view them impartially, I say if he be incapable of knowing himself with the aid of so much previous, clear, intelligence, how much more incapable must he be of knowing any other man whose thoughts and designs he cannot be so sure of, or any other creature whose nature and true principles can never with certainty be known to him? In short, the truth is this, that unless a man be a tolerable adept in the knowledge of himself, and can perceive all the various turnings and windings of the human affections and passions and their effects in his own heart, he can have no rule or measure by which he may form and regulate his judgment concerning the actions and intentions of others.
I think you are right, said I.
It is probably, therefore, a truer maxim, continued he, to say that it is easier for a man to know himself than to know any other man or any other creature; and that a man’s knowledge of other men and of other creatures will very much increase as he advances in the knowledge of himself and of his own nature. For his most rational conjectures concerning the natures of other animals are principally founded on what he is conscious of in himself as an animal.
He saw I did not incline to object.
Let us then digress no farther, said he, but return to our subject:
There is another kind of principles which is entirely of human creation, and which can only with propriety be called principles as they are the beginnings of human reasoning. These usually pass under well-known denominations of data, axioms, maxims, rules, etc. They are invented and formed by the human mind in aid of its own imbecility. They are foundations which it finds itself obliged to lay before it can proceed in the reasoning art to the building of any considerable structure. They may be solid or sandy, true or false. In proportion to their truth or falsehood will be the stability or instability of the structure we raise upon them. In short, they are merely inventions of the human mind to facilitate its own progress in the search of less evident and more important truths, or to enable us to prove to others (granting them to be true) that some other propositions must be true which had been denied, or of which there seemed to be some doubt. But it is important to the matter we at present have in view to remember that this form of principles can only be called principles relative to the human mind in the exercise of its reasoning faculty, and that the true and genuine principles of things which are formed and constituted in their natures neither are, nor are at all like unto, those data, axioms, rules, or maxims of human invention; but exist quite independently of and prior to any such things.
Well, said I, but what do you infer from all this?
Why, do you not see, answered he, that all the principles which Mr. Locke advances and refutes as innate (if any, says he, can be so) are of this latter kind?
I do, returned I. But what then?
Why, then said he, Mr. Locke, with the greatest respect it be spoken, has very much misspent his time and pains, having only proved that certain data or maxims are not innate principles of human nature, which I hope you now perceive (though true) was nothing to the purpose; the innate principles of our nature and such data and maxims being quite different things.
They seem so, indeed, replied I, and I perceive by your explication that data or axioms are of human invention, but that the principles which constitute the natures of things are of divine origin. But permit me to trouble you a little farther. If certain moral maxims be found to be indisputably just and agreeable to the true interests and happiness of mankind (though of human invention merely) may that not serve us in the regulation of our conduct as effectually as any innate principles whatever? Or, in other words, is not our reason given us to supply, in some degree, the place of innate moral principles?
This, returned he, is what Mr. Locke would have us to understand, but most certainly it cannot be so, for as we have shown before, we are not able by reasoning to create principles in things. The principles of all things exist in them before we begin to reason about them, or they never could be made to exist at all by any human power.
Our reason must always have some foundation to build upon; that foundation must exist before we begin to reason, or we could not reason at all. We can neither perceive or understand anything as a subject of reasoning whose principles do not exist prior to our reasoning. Thus moral maxims, when true, must be founded on some principles in the human nature which are originally inherent in man, and our reasoning in the formation of such maxims must be regulated by those originally-inherent principles. Had we not such principles innate or born with us, our reason could have no ground to go upon concerning morals, for reasoning could never make a man, devoid of innate moral principles, perceive the justice or truth of any moral maxim. Indeed, without such principles he could never know anything at all of moral maxims, for when any moral maxim is proposed to us we can neither understand it or examine into its truth or falsehood without referring to our internal touchstone, our innate moral sentiments; they alone enable us to understand it, and by them only can we judge of its truth or falsehood, for its truth or falsehood to us depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with them.
My feelings, said I, will not permit me to contradict you. But Mr. Locke, you know, rather triumphantly demands a catalogue of these principles, which he says no one “has ventured yet to give.”
I understand you, replied he: you desire to know what I have to say on that subject?
I do, returned I.
You know, then, continued he, that when Mr. Locke demands a catalogue of innate principles, he means a catalogue of propositions such as he had before proved to be not innate, and such as you and I have agreed cannot properly be called principles of our nature at all. These, therefore, can be but little to our present purpose. But nevertheless, we have innate moral principles which do not consist of propositions or maxims, but of internal sentiments or conscious feelings prior to all moral maxims, and without which (as you have seen) morals could have no foundation in nature, nor could be understood.
All right and wrong, just and unjust, which concern the nature and happiness of man is perceived by him through what is innate, and formed in him in the very constitution of his nature, or he could never perceive or understand them at all. If anyone require a catalogue, or rather an exact description of these innate internal sentiments, I can only tell him what I feel within myself, and describe to him how the actions of men and how the relations of their actions, when I hear or read them, affect my nature and move my conscious feelings. Nor can he have any other rule of judging the truth or falsehood of my sentiments but by reference to his own conscience, by which only it is possible for him to form any rational judgment.
Mr. Locke himself does not think a better explanation can be given of any simple perception, or idea, than that we do perceive it, which is as much as to say, thus I am impressed by the object; thus it affects me; how are you impressed? How does it affect you? This doctrine, you see, supposes that all men being of the same kind have the same natural principles in them (with the degrees only or more or less perfect) and that, therefore, their perceptions must be the same, or very nearly the same; and indeed, were they not so, they could never understand each others’ meaning.
We do not, therefore, contend about innate moral principles, as if they were innate propositions or innate ideas, but as principles naturally inherent in mankind, which being excited to action, raise in our minds ideas and concerning which we can make propositions. We can describe them to each other, and we can compare our feelings and perceptions of them together, as we can those of sight or any other sense. But take away the innate principles, the sight, and the moral sense, and everyone perceives that neither reasoning, argumentation, explanation, or description, in short, that no human contrivance can possibly make the blind man understand any thing concerning the objects of sight, or the unconscious man any thing concerning moral truths. If our conscience, or moral sense, were not born with us, we most certainly never could be made to feel or understand any thing concerning morals, nor could we ever reason at all about them; we should be entirely ignorant of any such thing.
You must now, no doubt, perceive, continued he, how absurd it would be to demand a catalogue of our innate moral principles when the true nature of them is rightly understood. It would be to demand a catalogue of all the conscious sentiments excited in us in all the various actions and circumstances which occur to us in human life; in which right or wrong, just or unjust, moral beauty or deformity, are concerned. It were as reasonable to demand a catalogue of all the various sensations excited in us by the operations of outward things on our other senses. The only rational attempt to describe or give a catalogue of our innate moral principles would be to copy the purer sentiments of the best moralists, who have, with the soundest heads, justly and naturally depicted the conscious sentiments of the worthiest hearts; which would be no more than if, being curious in vision and the nature of sight, we were to consult the ablest masters in optics and were to give a catalogue of their experiments and opinions in that science.
But rather than you should have that trouble, said I, we will talk no more of a catalogue.
He smiled; and after a short silence, he proceeded to show that conscience, or innate moral principles, must be the same in all men.
You know, said he, that Mr. Locke himself, presuming that creatures of the same species are endued with powers, faculties, or inborn principles (though he will not say innate) which are the same in every individual of the species, not defective, seems not to doubt that the simple ideas conveyed to the mind by the senses (though inexplicable by words) are the same in all men; or so far the same as to enable them very well to understand each others’ meaning. And this, no doubt, is true with the exception of more or less perfect faculties, and consequently of more clear or more obscure, more extensive or more confined ideas; for, were it not true, individuals could no more understand each other than if they were creatures of quite different species. If their natural faculties had not a very strong similarity, if the manner of their operation were not very much the same, how could they possibly nearly penetrate each others thoughts or conceive ideas enough similar to enable them to hold any communication?
But, this being allowed, it must equally hold in our innate moral principles, which though as to strength or weakness, clearness or obscurity, they be somewhat diversified in different men; yet they must be so much of the same nature, as to differ only in degree, not in kind; otherwise we could hold no intelligible conversation about morals.
Certainly not, said I.
How very inconsistent, then continued he, is the doctrine advanced by Mr. Locke when he says that conscience “is nothing else but our own opinion, or judgment, of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions. And if conscience be a proof of innate principles, contraries may be innate principles, since some men with the same bent of conscience prosecute what others avoid.”
If this were true, if there were nothing internally the same, nothing common and inborn in the human species concerning moral rectitude or pravity, but if every individual in that point were distinct and a species himself, and could form moral sentiments which might or might not according to accidents or his own fancy have relation to or correspondence with those of other men, all intelligible communication on that subject must cease, and all the doctrines of morality among creatures thus distinct and irrelative must not only be impertinent and incomprehensible to each other, but must remain utterly devoid of that general nature, or those specific qualities, which only could render such doctrines useful to us as creatures of the same kind, nature, and constitution.
All those faculties, qualities, or properties, continued he, which are comprised in the formation and constitution of an individual of any species of creatures, must be comprehended in every individual of the same species, not defective, otherwise he cannot be deemed to be of the same species, but another. And if any individual be born defective, or without some faculty or property common to his species (as we have shown of the blind man) of things acquirable by or relative to that faculty, he can receive no knowledge from, nor have any intelligible communication with, those who are not so defective.
Unless those faculties and qualities which constitute a species were the same in every individual of that species, that consent of nature, or sympathetic charm which arises from the sameness of our feelings, and which draws together and unites the individuals of every species could have no existence. They could by no other means than by the identity of the principles of their nature be thus inclined towards each other; nor could they by any other means conceive any thing of each other’s nature, any more than if each individual were a distinct species.
If all men, then, be of the same species, all the faculties, qualities, or properties which go to the constituting or making of a man must be the same in all men. That they are the same is clear because men do understand each other when they converse together concerning them; they differ (as we have said) only in degree. Now, conscience must be of this number; it is a quality or property common to human nature, varying only in the degrees of stronger or weaker, clearer or more obscure. Men understand each other when they speak of conscience, which, were it not the same in all, they could not do. It is, therefore, the same in all men, or it is nothing that can be useful to them.
If conscience were, as Mr. Locke pretends, only the opinion or judgment of every individual concerning the moral rectitude or pravity of his own actions, and if those opinions and judgments be various and even contrary, as he allows and thinks he proves, it could be no natural, general, principle of the species; but men, in point of conscience, would be naturally quite irrelative to each other: and every individual would be a distinct species, and could no more judge of the conscience of another man then he could judge the conscience of any being whose nature was totally unlike his own.
But our opinions or judgments cannot make or constitute any principle in our nature. If I have an opinion, or if I judge that any thing will be good for, or pleasing to, my nature, which on experiment proves evil and displeasing, my opinion or judgment cannot make it otherwise. Our opinions may be lightly taken up, ill-grounded, and false; but the principles of our nature are the work of infinite wisdom, deep-rooted, and invariably true. And though at the expense of our own misery and vexation we may thwart and oppose them, yet they can never be eradicated by any power of ours, nor can their nature be changed by our erroneous opinions and judgments.
Mr. Locke, I remember, continued he, seems to think the argument conclusive against innate moral principles when he shows us that all our ideas included in the propositions which he calls moral principals are acquired. But this is not going to the bottom of the matter in question. Mr. Locke always carefully avoids the use of the word innate whenever he names any of the principles or faculties by which we acquire our ideas of things. Yet, I think, he somewhere has called them in-born in the Essay. And in his Treatise of Civil Government he finds it hard to avoid innate principles, and he talks of the principles of human nature more than once.
He likens the mind to a piece of white paper, ready to receive any characters or impressions. He informs us that through the medium of the senses the mind is impressed and receives such ideas as they convey; we therefore have no innate ideas. True. But can he justly say we have, therefore, no innate principles? Certainly not. For ideas and innate principles are not the same thing. Ideas are only the produce, and arise in consequence, of innate principles. – Are not our senses innate through which we perceive those ideas? Is not the mind itself innate which perceives them? Most undoubtedly. And to object that they are dormant and useless until they be excited to action is frivolous, for so are our hands, our feet, and all our members and faculties, yet who can deny them to be innate, or born with us?
Through the senses, which are undoubtedly innate, we receive ideas of external things: through the moral sense, no less certainly innate, we receive ideas concerning moral things. Any one born without sight cannot have the least idea of the objects of sight. Any one born without innate moral principles, or a moral sense, cannot have any idea of moral subjects. Reasoning would be as vain and useless in one case as in the other. Reasoning cannot give sight to the blind; reasoning cannot give a moral sense to those born without it – it must be innate, or it cannot be at all.
While I was expressing my satisfaction with my friend’s arguments, and going to extend my inquiries farther, some company arrived who joined us, and continued with us till after dinner.