Dialogue 3

Towards the evening, our company took their leave of us, and my friend and I according to our custom walked in the adjacent fields, where on the first opportunity I renewed the conversation in which we were interrupted in the morning.

You will excuse me, said I, though perhaps by this time I ought to be fully satisfied of the existence of innate moral principles, if I still continue to trouble you with a few more of Mr. Locke’s objections, which are thought to carry some weight with them.

He smiled assent.

You know what stress Mr. Locke lays upon the want of universal consent to those propositions which he gives us for innate moral principles, if any be so.

I do, replied he.  But as I think we agreed that propositions were not innate principles, nor any way similar to them, it should seem what he hath said upon that head cannot be much to our present purpose.  However, continued he, it may not be improper to say somewhat on that subject, if it only be to endeavor to show what sort of universality it is reasonable to expect in human nature, and in this, I think, Mr. Locke will materially help us out.

But to facilitate our inquiry, it will be proper to explain more strictly the sense of some words which we may already have used and may again frequently use in the course of it.  I mean the words conscience, moral sense, and innate moral principles, which I think have been and may be generally used promiscuously, as significant of the same things.

By these words, then, I mean an innate sense, implanted in our nature, as moral agents, by the great Creator of all things:  by which we are made sensible of the right and wrong, of the just and unjust, of the moral beauty and deformity of human actions and human minds, and to which we must refer as to the only true criterion in all our reasonings that concern the just rights of mankind, the natural and moral obligations we are under to others, and to ourselves, and in general, the moral happiness or misery of the human species.

Now I know of no objections against the universal existence of this moral sense in mankind which do not lie equally against the universal existence of all our other senses.  Total want and privation are objections as far as they extend, but imperfection or defectiveness is no objection against the universality of the existence of our senses.  Sight and hearing are possessed by men from the greatest human perfection down to the most imperfect and defective.  Blindness and deafness are the only exceptions against the universality of sight and hearing.  Conscience also is naturally inherent in all mankind, but as in the senses of sight and hearing, with various degrees of sensibility and clearness it may descend from the greatest perfection down to the most defective dullness.  But like the sense of feeling, it seems to be so closely inherent in us that it is hard to conceive how a living man can be totally deprived of it.  Idiotism and madness may disable him for perceiving its effects, and in infancy he may be incapable for good reasons which will be shown hereafter, and these are the only exceptions against its universality in human nature; but they are not exceptions against the universality of its existence, they are only exceptions against the universal perception of it.

I believe you are right, said I; but do you not think it an objection to this moral sense that men are not equally quick and fine in their feelings of its operations and effects?

It can certainly be no objection to its existence, replied he, any more than to the existence of the other senses.
But do you then suppose, interrogated I, that the perspicacity or dullness of the conscience, or moral sense, bears any proportion to the strength or weakness of our mental faculties?

I really cannot say, answered he, what proportion they may bear to each other; but I know that our perception of the effects of conscience, as well as the effects of the other senses, will be clear or otherwise according to the strengths or weakness of our understandings.  This is a matter of daily and continual experience.  And indeed, it is one very rational way of accounting for the seemingly great diversity of men’s thoughts and opinions, which certainly does not arise from any difference in their natural principles (only in the degrees of more or less perfect) or from any natural difference in their way of perceiving things, but from the clearness or obscurity, strength or weakness, of their mental abilities.

But does not this argument, demanded I, make against the efficacy of the conscience as a moral guide?

No more, replied he, than it does against the efficacy of the other senses for their several uses.

For my part, continued he, I do not pretend to fathom the depths of infinite wisdom.  I do not, therefore, ask why every principle of our nature is not precisely and universally the same as to measure and degree in the whole species.  I perceive, as to measure and degree, that every principle differs in almost every individual, and I also perceive that there is an universality in the kind and nature of every principle given by the Deity to the whole human species, and indeed to every other species of creatures, notwithstanding those differences in degree.
That every single animal of the same species differs from others does not so far shock me as to make me conclude that the principles of their nature are not the same in kind.  Much less does it affect me in the human species when I consider man as a rational creature in a higher degree, as a free agent in point of morals, indued with innate conscious principles, and as the elector and chooser of his own moral happiness or misery.  For surely whoever will consider these distinctions, what they are in us, and how we are affected by them, cannot be much surprised to find more diversity in men than in any other kind of creatures whose natures are restrained to instincts, and who are incapable of any degree of moral free agency.

To be calling out, therefore, for universality of consent on these occasions seems to me to be only taking an unfair advantage of the almost inexplicable diversity to be found in human minds and in human actions, with which any acute man, if he please, may puzzle others and himself.  But amidst all this diversity, when we candidly survey the conduct of our species, we can easily perceive them to be actuated, generally and universally, by the same natural principles. And indeed, as we have seen, if it were not so, they could not sympathize; there could be no consent of natures in them, nor could they every understand each others’ meaning at all.

But, as I have said, Mr. Locke himself will materially help us out in this argument.  Then taking the Essay on Human Understanding out of his pocket, he turned to page 139, and read as follows:

“The knowing precisely what our words stand for, would, I imagine, in this, as well as a great many other cases, end the dispute.  For I am apt to think that men, when they come to examine them, find their simpler ideas all generally to agree, though in discourse with one another they perhaps confound one another with different names.  I imagine that men who abstract their thoughts, and do well examine the ideas of their own minds, cannot much differ in thinking, however they may perplex themselves with words, according to the way of speaking of the several schools or sects they have been bred up in:  though amongst unthinking men, who examine not scrupulously and carefully their own ideas, and strip them not from the marks men use for them, but confound them with words, there must be endless dispute, wrangling and jargon, especially if they be learned bookish men devoted to some sect, and accustomed to the language of it, and have learned to talk after others.  But if it should happen that any two thinking men should really have different ideas, I do not see how they could discourse or argue one with another.”

Here it seems, said he, Mr. Locke does not see how men could discourse or argue together unless their simple ideas were the same.  Nor do I.  But their simple ideas cannot be the same unless their senses through which they are perceived are the same.  If the senses be the same, the universality of the senses can have no exceptions but those we have already named.  And if we have proved the existence of a moral sense necessary (as I think we have, from the impossibility of men’s discoursing intelligibly about morals without it) there can be no objections to its universality but those we have mentioned.

You are doubtless in the right, said I; yet you know Mr. Locke has been pleased to advance that if we had any innate moral principles, infants, idiots, and madmen would be more clearly sensible of them than other people, because less corrupted by habits and by the prejudices and customs of this world.

He has so, replied he, but here it can be of no force, because Mr. Locke’s moral principles, as I must again repeat, were only moral propositions.  According to our explication and ideas of innate moral principles, nothing can be more absurd.  Would it not be as reasonable to say that infants, by their helpless ignorance and inexperience, that idiots, by their total want of understanding and capacity, and that madmen, by the distraction and disorder of their minds, are in a better condition on these accounts  to distinguish nicely, and to judge accurately, of their sensations and moral sentiments?  In truth, minds thus situated are too weak, or too confused and distracted, to be able to judge, or even to be sensible, of their own helpless and miserable condition.

But as Mr. Locke denies that we have any innate moral principles at all, he supposes and assumes what he can neither suppose nor assume of any other principle of our nature:  he supposes  that if we have any innate principles of morality they must not only be born with us, ready molded and formed into such evident and indisputable propositions as no man can deny. This is strange.

Do we say that the sense of hearing is not innate because we are not born perfectly accomplished in music?  Do we infer that our sight is not innate because we are not born opticians?  Certainly not.  Why, then, should we presume that our conscience is not innate because we are not born moral philosophers?  If to the sight, to the hearing, and to the other senses, time and experience be allowed necessary, and if, to adjust properly the ideas and thoughts they have conveyed to us, understanding, attention, and judgment be wanting, why may we not, as reasonably, allow the same time and experience, the same understanding, attention, and judgment, to be requisite to the nature and proper conduct of our innate moral sense?

It seems reasonable, answered I.

In the imbecility of infancy, and the giddiness of childhood, continued he, we are but poorly qualified for making nice observations on our sensations and ideas of any sort; but so much less on those of the moral kind, because the nature of our condition is, then, such as scarcely, if at all, places us in the circumstances of moral agents.  In infancy, it is out of the question, and in childhood there are but few calls for the exercise of conscience, which is wisely ordered, for then we have but little judgment to observe its effects.  God has naturally placed us at these times, and much longer, under the care and tuition of parents, clearly indicating thereby our inexperience and want of capacity to govern ourselves.  In short, in morals, as in everything else, our knowledge is progressive, and whoever desires to be a proficient in that science will find that experience, application, and good sense are at least as requisite as they are to the learning of any other inferior art or science.  Nor does the nature and circumstances of human life by any means require what Mr. Locke assumes to be necessary as an evidence of innate moral principles, i.e., that they should be so born with us as to be instantaneously perceptible in the forms of indisputably true propositions.  For though all our faculties of mind and body be born with us, yet as the most perfect use, and highest perfection, of any one of them is not naturally requisite or useful in infancy or childhood, God having created both our minds and bodies in a progressive, and not in a perfect or full grown state; to object against any of them as not innate because it is not born with us perfect or full-grown, is only to object against it because it is not what it was never intended to be; the same objection may as reasonably be made against the innateness of every part or faculty of a man’s body.  Your senses may be as strong, as clear, and as perfect, as ever human senses were; your moral sense may be as true, as just, and though all be innate, yet is the knowledge acquired by them progressive, and perfected by slow degrees; nor do I see the least reason for excluding the moral sense out of this predicament.  For my part, I can perceive nothing in all this but what is entirely natural, and quite consonant to the condition and circumstances of humanity.

Here he paused.

I cannot dissent from you, said I.  Yet you know Mr. Locke speaks of soldiers in armies, and even of whole nations whom he supposes to be entirely devoid of all conscience or any moral sentiment.

He does so, replied he, but that is but a continuation of the same error, and must be answered by the same kind of reasoning we have already employed; of which, perhaps by this time, you have heard more than enough.

I assured him of his mistake, and begged him to proceed, and he continued thus:

If there were really whole nations, as Mr. Locke contends, (confiding in the wonderful stories of marvelous travelers) that coolly, deliberately, and without any remorse at all could destroy their own children, and if such actions were not the effects of some gloomy and horrid superstitions, or some very pressing fears of shame or want, or of some corrupt affections, or violent and unruly passions, it would certainly be a very extraordinary phenomenon, and so very contrary to the nature and conduct of every other species of creatures in the world that we know of, that it would be a very odious and disgraceful peculiarity in that species of animals which has generally been esteemed the noblest upon earth.

I must own my nature shudders when I read what Mr. Locke seems to describe with so much coldness and indifference.  He desires us to “view an army at the sacking of a town, and see what observation, or sense of moral principles, or what touch of conscience (they feel) for all the outrages they do.  Robberies, murders, rapes, are the sports of men set at liberty from censure.”  All the other cruelties which he continues to describe in the same page he very unnaturally presumes to be done without scruple, without any remorse at all.  Could anything be more cruelly unjust to others than to presume thus much?  Could anything be more unphilosophical?  Unjust to others because his own heart, I will believe for his honor, could never exhibit to himself a capability of perpetrating the crimes he mentions without scruple or without any remorse at all.  Unphilosophical, because lightly deeming them the sports of men set at liberty from censure, he does not endeavor to investigate their causes and show them to be the effects of what they really are effects:  in war, of furious passions, heated imaginations, and turbulent appetites; in the other cases, of gloomy and debasing superstitions, of strong fears of shame or want, or, of some other perverted affection, or urgent and forcible passion.  But why he should presume that after such actions men feel no remorse at all I know not; it is undoubtedly a mere presumption without any rational evidence, for I am certain Mr. Locke could have no evidence of any such thing in himself.
It is true, indeed, that while men continue under the influence of strong affections, violent passions, or enthusiastic illusions, they are but little sensible of the operations of conscience within them; but to infer from hence that they have no conscience, no internal moral sense, would certainly be a very hasty and injudicious conclusion; because we might with just as much reason infer they have no eyes, no ears, no feeling, for under the same influence of such affections, passions, and illusions men frequently can neither see, hear, or feel.

I gave an assenting motion.

When we speak, said he, more within compass of our own experience and knowledge of human nature, we can speak with more certainty and with better evidence to ourselves, to our friends, and to those who are of the same nation, or of the same quarter of the world with ourselves.  But when we range about the earth with voyagers and travelers who are generally but too well disposed to fancy things to be wonderful and extraordinary which they are unused to, and who are, most of them, but very unqualified to give us just accounts of the laws, customs, and religions of nations; who, if they were qualified, seldom stay long enough anywhere either to learn the language or understand the manners of the people whom they visit, and who can only judge, and that grossly, of the effects which come under their observation, but of whole causes they must often be ignorant or but very incompetent judges;  I say when we range about the earth with them, taking their strange accounts for indisputable facts,  we must surely be very well inclined to swallow anything to serve our present purpose.

The truth is this, that if there were such nations, such creatures in the form of men, as these monster-loving voyagers tell us of, and as Mr. Locke seems so easily to believe there are, and who could perpetrate, as he assumes all the unnatural barbarities he names without scruple, or without any remorse at all, the only rational inference to be drawn from it is that they are not of the same species with ourselves, for they most undoubtedly differ extremely from all that we know of humanity within the compass of our own experience and of our own internal feelings.  In short, any unprejudiced man would find it as easy to believe that there were whole nations born deaf or blind, or without any of the senses.
I must confess, replied I, after what has been said on the universality of the senses and of the moral sense, and after what Mr. Locke himself advances concerning the impossibility of men’s understanding each other in discourse unless their simple ideas were the same; I think there can be no doubt of his mistake in this question.  However, with your leave, I will still trouble you a little longer.

Mr. Locke, after explaining to us the nature of pain and pleasure, and informing us that “these like other simple ideas cannot be described nor their names defined, the way of knowing them being as of the simple ideas of the senses, only by experience:” concludes in the next section, “things then are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.”

You mention this, no doubt, said he, as a thing about which you are not satisfied.  And it is certainly, in a moral sense, but a very gross account of good and evil, and even in a physical sense it will not bear scrutiny.

Though it be true that pain or pleasure do, immediately or ultimately, result from all our actions as moral agents, yet to conclude generally that things are good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain is a very considerable error.  For in a moral view things are really good, or really evil, according as they serve or injury, or tend to serve or injure, the true interests of humanity, independently of the pain or pleasure that may accompany them.  Pleasure or pain, simply considered, do not constitute what is morally good, or evil, in our nature; they are only concomitants of our good or evil actions, and more often ultimately than immediately.  For the pains of vice and the pleasures of virtue are never so sensibly felt in the pursuit as after the accomplishment.

Many things are morally good and productive of the best moral effects although accompanied with much pain and anxiety.  As, when our affections are disordered and misplaced, and our indulged passions are become turbulent and unruly, so that the oppressed voice of nature can hardly be heard in us.  Who is not sensible that nature thus overstrained and thrown out of her true and proper course cannot be brought back again to a due temper and just balance without much painful attention and perseverance?  Things, therefore, are not morally good or evil only in reference to pleasure or pain.  And as much may be said physically, and with as good reasons, for there are many painful and troublesome operations in physic which are very conducive and even quite necessary to the good and health of the body.

True, said I.  But do you, then, deny that pain is evil, and pleasure is good, in an abstracted sense?

In these abstruse questions, replied he, we are apt to be puzzled by the abuse of words; and the present difficulty is of that sort.  That pain is grievous there can be no doubt, and if we confine the sense of the word evil to signify grievous only, then pain is evil; but when we extend the sense of the word evil and make it signify all evil, moral and physical, or leave it to signify, indeterminately, what everyone fancies to be evil, then to say that pain is evil is not true.  Pain is that sort of evil which is grievous to the sufferer, but pain, as we have shown, both morally and physically, is frequently productive of very great good to mankind.  So pleasure, abstractedly, is delightful, which indeed is only saying that pleasure is what it is.  But when we say that pleasure is good, that must depend upon the signification we give to the word good.  If by good we mean only pleasant, then it is indisputable, but if by good we mean morally right, just, or reasonable, or in a physical sense, conducive to health, nothing can be more clearly false.

Here we were interrupted by the presence of the ladies who came out to meet us; when our conversation turning upon more agreeable things, our discourses on these subjects ended, and were not renewed during my stay in the country.



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