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Art. V.-Essays on the Formation and Publication of
Opinions, and on other subjects. From the last London edition. Philadelphia. R. W. Pomeroy. A. Waldie, printer, 1831.
Essays on the Pursuit of Truth, on the Progress of
Knowledge, and the Fundamental Principles of all Evidence and Expectation. By the author of Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions. Phila. delphia. R. W. Pomeroy. A. Waldie, printer, 1831.
The Essays, of which we have here given the titles, have attracted no small degree of attention in Great Britain, and are, doubtless, the production of a mind of high cultivation, and extraordinary refinement. There is manifested in every part of the work a liberal and independent spirit; a love of truth which disdains to be trammelled; a metaphysical acumen which penetrates the abstrusest subjects; and a nice moral discrimination, indicating a long and familiar acquaintance with the science of ethics. We have seldom encountered an author for whose abilities we have been constrained to feel a higher respect; and we are of opinion that he will gain an unusual ascendency over the judgment of his readers, generally. We were led to entertain this high estimation of the talent with which these Essays were written, before we noticed the exalted eulogy of the Westminster Review, on the first of these volumes. The language of the Reviewer is, “If a man could be offered the paternity of any modern book that he chose, he would not hazard much by deciding, that next after the Wealth of Nations,' he would request to be honoured with a relationship to the Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions.' And again, “It would have been an honourable and pleasant memory to have written a book so totus teres atque rotundus, so finished in its parts, and so perfect in their union, as, 'Essays on the Formation of Opinions,' &c. Like one of the great statues of antiquity, it might have been broken into fragments, and each separated limb would have pointed to the existence of some interesting whole, of which the value might be surmised from the beauty of the specimen.” By most, perhaps, this praise will be thought somewhat extravagant,
but after making all due allowance, there will be much remaining in the Essays of this anonymous author, which cannot be easily rivalled.
Upon the publication of the second edition of the “Essays, on the Formation and Publication of Opinions," we find it noticed in the same Review, but probably by a different critic, in the following manner, “It gives us no ordinary pleasure to find that a second edition has been called for of this very useful volume. It is one of the signs of the times...... The design is excellent, and the execution more than creditable. A popular manner has been studied by the writer, and with success. The train of thought is simple, without being superficial, and is followed at once with ease and with interest." The principal topics which are treated in these volumes are, the utility of the knowledge of truth, and its invariable connexion with happiness--the importance of cherishing a sincere love of truth, fearless of consequences—the independence of our belief on the will—the sources of diversity of opinion among men—Belief, or opinion, whether properly an object of moral approbation and disapprobation-of rewards and punishments. Besides these principal topics, there are several short essays on subjects of minor importance. In the second volume, the author resumes and pursues his favourite subject; the importance of truth-the obstacles which stand in the way of impartial investigation—the duty of inquirythe free publication of opinions—the progress of knowledge, -and the uniformity of causation. On the Essay, on the last subject here mentioned, there is an able article in the number of the Edinburgh Review, for January, 1831, in which, the correctness of the author's principle, as it relates to miracles, is successfully controverted.
It is not our object to enter into a discussion of all the principles and points brought into view in these ingenious Essays; but to contine ourselves to two inquiries, of great moral and practical importance. The first is, the responsibility of man for his belief or opinions; the second, whether any testimony is sufficient to establish a fact which is a departure from the laws of nature.
The ground assumed and ingeniously defended by our author, will be best understood by a few brief extracts from the seventh section of his “Essay on the Formation of Opinions." p. 57.
“By the universal consent of the reason and feelings of man. kind, what is involuntary, cannot involve any merit or demerit on the part of the agent. Results which are not the conse. quences of volition, cannot be the proper objects of moral praise and blame. ...... It follows, that those states of the under. standing which we term belief, doubt, and disbelief, inasmuch as they are not voluntary, nor the result of any exertion of the will, imply neither merit nor demerit in him who is the subject of them. Whatever be the state of a man's understanding in rela. tion to any possible proposition, it is a state or affection devoid equally of desert and culpability. The nature of an opinion can. not make it criminal. În relation to the same subject, one may believe, another may doubt, and a third disbelieve, and all with equal innocence.
“There may, it is true, be considerable merit or demerit attached to the manner in which an inquiry is prosecuted. The labour and research which a man bestows, is order to deter. mine any important question, and the impartiality with which he conducts the examination, may be entitled to our warmest applause. On the other hand, it is reprehensible for any one to be swayed in his conduct by interest or passion, to reject opportuni. ties of information, to be designedly partial in examining ev. dence, to be deaf to whatever is offered on one side of a question, and lend all his attention to the other....
“No one, perhaps, will dispute, that when a man acts without intentional partiality in the examination of a question, he cannot be at all culpable for the effect which follows, whether the research terminate in faith or incredulity; because it is the necessary and involuntary consequence of the views presented to his understanding, without the slightest interference of choice: but, it will probably be alleged, that in so far as belief, doubt, and disbelief, have been the result of wilful partiality of attention, they may be regarded with propriety as culpable, since it is common to blame a man for those things, which, although involuntary in themselves, are the result of voluntary acts. To this it may be replied, that it is, to say the least, a want of precision to apply blame in such a manner: it is always more correct to regard men as culpable on account of their voluntary acts, than on account of the results over which volition has no immediate control. There would, nevertheless, be little objection to considering opinions as reprehensible, in so far as they were the result of unfair investigation, if it could be rendered a useful or practical principle. In all cases where we make involuntary effects the objects of moral reprehension, it is because they are certain proofs or positive indications of the voluntary acts which preceded them.
Opinions, however, are not effects of this kind: they are not positive indications of any voluntary acts: they furnish no criterions of the fairness or unfairness of investigation, since the most opposite results, the most contrary opinions, may ensue from the same degree of impartiality and application. . . . Belief, doubt, and disbelief, therefore, can never, even in the character of indications of antecedent voluntary acts, be the proper objects of moral reprehension or commendation.”
From these quotations, the opinions of the author will be readily understood: it will be seen that in no case can we be praiseworthy or culpable, on account of the opinions which we form.
And in these sentiments he is by no means singular; several of the most distinguished men, in Great Britain have publicly avowed the same. We refer particularly to the Lord Chancellor of England, and the late Sir James M·Intosh; and as far as the Westminster Review may be considered an index of public sentiment, this opinion seems to have taken firm possession of a considerable portion of the reading population of Great Britain.
The author of these Essays, however, seems to be sensible that he is opposing what has been the generally received opinion. He takes pains to account for the prevalence of a sentiment opposite to that for which he pleads. And, indeed, the fact cannot be denied, that, in all countries where ethics have been an object of attention, it has been held as an axiom, that men were responsible for their belief and opinions, in certain cases. So far as men have been agreed on this point, there is a presumption that there exists, in reason and nature, some solid foundation for the opinion. But as there seems to be room for some diversity of opinion on this subject; and as the commonly received opinion has been called in question by men of great name and sagacity; it is possible that the world may have been, until this time, in an error. Until, however, this is clearly demonstrated, the presumption remains in favour of the old opinion. But omitting all appeals to the common consent of mankind, let us come directly to the discussion of the point itself.
The first thought which strikes us in meditating on this subject, is, that if men are in no case responsible for their belief or opinions, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility. If men's opinions are in no case proper objects of moral approbation or disapprobation, their actions, which
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depend for their character on their opinions, cannot be reprehensible. It cannot be morally wrong to act in accordance with an innocent opinion. If there is no culpability in a man's believing that he may take away the life of an old miser, there cannot be any criminality in his doing the deed, which he has persuaded himself is innocent. Thus, this doctrine leads to the subversion of all moral distinctions.
But the ingenious author admits, and strenuously maintains, that man is responsible for his volitions, as the universal opinion of men ever has been that for our voluntary states of mind we are accountable. Yet it is difficult to understand how my volitions can be wrong, when the opinions on which they often absolutely depend, are free from all blame. Suppose a man to be fully persuaded in his mind, that private property was an nautho zed invasion of the common rights of mankind; if he might entertain this opinion with perfect innocence, how could it be wrong to act agreeably to this persuasion, and to appropriate to his own use the property of another? If, while the opinion is innocent, the action which accords with it is immoral, then, the consequence would follow, that a man might not do what he innocently believes is right.
It is impossible to separate voluntary actions from belief or opinions; if the former are culpable, so are the latter, on which they depend for their character. Voluntary action owes its moral quality to the motive by which it is prompted. If the motive be pure and good, the volition is so also; and if the motive be evil, so is the voluntary action. Separate the volition from the motive which produces it, and you destroy the moral character of the action. A man resolves to kill his neighbour. This purpose is a voluntary state of the mind, and is wicked; but why? because it is prompted by a malignant feeling; but suppose that this purpose was produced by nothing else but the desire of self-preservation, or the desire to protect the innocent from lawless violence; who does not see that the same volition may be good or bad, according to the motive by which it is produced? Well, if the volition receives its complexion from the motive or affection producing it, then certainly praise or blame attaches to motives, as much as to volitions. But these internal motives or affections depend for their existence and character, on the opinions which have obtained a firm hold of the mind. The malignant feeling which produces the purpose to kill a man, is the