« AnteriorContinuar »
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
VOL. IV. No. III.-3D
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 unauthorized 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
effect of an erroneous persuasion or opinion. As, suppose I have through prejudice taken up the opinion, that some man is the enemy of God, and a great obstacle to the progress of his Church, and that by putting him out of the way, I should be doing service to God and the public; is it not manifest, that if there be responsibility any where, opinion or belief must come in for its share, since this is the true origin of the culpable action? But if the opinion is innocent, so is the feeling which flows from it; so is the volition prompted by this motive; and so is the action which is the result of the voluntary purpose. Hence it is evident, that the consequence of this doctrine is the subversion of all distinction between right and wrong; between virtue and vice.
The ingenious author admits that opinion is, sometimes, the effect of voluntary states of the mind, and, on that account, it has become often the object of moral approbation or disapprobation; but this, he thinks, is not exactly correct, but is transferring the moral character of the action, from the volition to which it properly belongs, to the belief or opinion, to which it does not appertain. But even admitting the propriety of considering that which is the criterion of the moral character of our volitions as the proper object of praise or blame, he does not think that our belief or opinions would, even in this case, be the proper object of condemnation or approbation: “Opinions,” says he, "are not indications of any voluntary acts; they furnish no evidence of the fairness or unfairness of investigation; since the most opposite results, the most contrary opinions, may arise from the same degree of impartiality and application.” Here, in our opinion, is the radical error of the moral system of the ingenious author of these Essays. He seems to receive it as a principle, that, in no case, where there is diversity of opinion, the evidence of truth is so clear, that none, can or do mistake respecting it, except through prejudice, inattention, or some want of fidelity and impartiality, in the mind of him who falls into error.
There may, indeed, be truths, and truths of a moral nature too, so situated as to evidence, in relation to the minds of different persons, that in the exercise of equal diligence and impartiality, men may come to opposite results, or embrace different opinions; but that this is generally the case, we hold to be a practical error of great magnitude. If this were indeed the fact, then the pursuit of truth would be nugatory; then there could be no duty incumbent on any man
in regard to it; because, however honest, diligent, and impartial the person might be, there would exist just the same probability of arriving at an erroneous, as a true opinion. Upon this principle, the high moral obligation of searching after truth, on which this writer so forcibly and frequently insists, is utterly subverted; for when men have no probability of finding truth rather than error, there is no moral obligation to pursue it. And this involves the very absurd opinion, that, generally, truth is accompanied with no better nor clearer evidence, than error. Now, if there be such a thing as truth, its characteristic must be, that it possesses evidence of being truth; and error is destitute of the evidence of truth. We have admitted, indeed, that relatively to the situation of particular minds, the evidence of truth may be so concealed or involved, that it is not perceived; and error, in such cases, may seem to be more probable than truth, even when there is a sincere desire to come at the truth; and these we are willing to consider as exceptions to the general rule. But, commonly, the evidence of truths which have any relation to moral conduct, is sufficiently within the reach of the honest inquirer; and if he adopts error, the reason must be, because he has been wanting in diligence, attention, or impartiality. He is, therefore, in all such cases responsible for his belief, as much as he can be for any thing; and if this is not, in any case, a proper object of moral approbation or condemnation, then, as was before shown, nothing is. For, as to the true point on which moral responsibility rests, we cannot but think, that the author enters into unnecessary refinement. Indeed, it is not correct that volition, taken in philosophic strictness, is the sole object of our moral approbation or disapprobation. We have already seen, that the moral character of the volition depends on the motive, and the internal motive or affection which prompts to volition gives it its moral character; and the nature of such an affection in a rational, accountable creature, is intimately and inseparably connected with belief or opinion. When men exercise their moral faculty in judging of the moral character of actions, they never enter into these nice distinctions. They take the action with all the preceding and accompanying circumstances, and form a correct opinion, without metaphysical discrimination. Thus, an immoral action, if you separate it from the volition which produced it, has no moral character; and the volition, considered separately from the quality of the motive, is no object of praise or blame; and the motive could not be what it is, unless the person entertained certain opinions; and the truth or falsehood of these opinions depends on the diligence and fidelity with which the great duty of forming opinions was performed. Now, in regard to all these consecutive acts, the agent is responsible; and it is not correct to confine his moral responsibility solely to the volition; or to the action; or to the motive; or to the forming of his opinions; but we take the whole together, as combining to form one moral act; and all further refinement only serves to bewilder the mind, and to render obscure and doubtful, that which otherwise would be perfectly evident.
To show the inconsistency of this opinion with the author's belief of the duty of impartially searching after truth, we will suppose the case of a man's entertaining the opinion, that there is no such thing as truth; or that the knowledge of truth is unattainable by us; or, that it is of no importance, for it matters not what we believe. Now this is a very supposable case, for all these opinions have been held by one and another. Then, we ask, what becomes of the obligation of these persons to inquire after the truth? They, according to the principle which we are considering, are in no respect responsible for their opinions; they cannot be considered as culpable for their belief or opinions. If then they may innocently entertain these opinions, there can be no moral obligation on them to act contrary to their own belief. This would be the greatest of moral absurdities. It appears, therefore, that this writer
. is not consistent with himself, in insisting on the obligation, which all men are under to search diligently and impartially after the truth ; and yet maintaining that men are, in no case, responsible for their opinions. The tendency of this doctrine, therefore, is to subvert all moral obligation of every kind; and also to render the pursuit of truth itself useless.
In all cases of this kind, the decision must be in accordance with the common judgment of men. To the moral sense of the human race, and not to the refined and metaphysical reasoning of philosophers, must the appeal be ultimately made. And to this tribunal we are willing to bring the cause, and are persuaded that the decision will not be ambiguous, or unfavourable to our opinion. Men have existed, who were firmly persuaded that it was right for them to take away the lives of others. Under the influence of superstition and fanaticism, the opinion has not only been entertained, but the fact has been perpetrated. Ravaillac, for example, when he