An Essay on Intuitive Morals

Being an Attempt to Popularize Ethical Science. Part I. Theory of Morals. First American Edition, with Additions and Corrections by the Author. Boston : Crosby, Nichols, & Co. 1859. pp. 294.

FOUR years ago last March this book appeared in England, published by Long-man ; a thin octavo, exciting little attention there, and scarcely more on this side the water, where the best English books have of late years found their first appreciation. The first notice of it printed in this country, so far as we know, appeared in the “ Harvard Magazine ” for June, 1855,—a publication so obscure, that, to most readers of the ATLANTIC, this will be their first knowledge of its existence. About two years later, Part II appeared in England, and then both books were reviewed in the “Christian Examiner"; yet, to all intents and purposes, this new edition is a new book, and we shall treat it as such. We have as yet a reprint of Part I. only, but we trust tne publishers will soon give us the other,—“The Practice of Morals,”—which, if less valuable than this, is still so much better than most works of its kind as to demand a republication.

The author—a woman—(for, to the shame of our virile secus be it said, a woman has written the best popular treatise on Ethics in the language)—divides her First Part into four chapters:—

I. What is the Moral Law?

II. Where the Moral Law is found.

III. That the Moral Law can be Obeyed.

IV. Why the Moral Law should be obeyed.

This, as will be seen, is an exhaustive analysis. To the great question of the first chapter, after a full discussion, she gives this answer:—

“ The Moral Law is the resumption of the eternal necessary Obligation of all Rational Free Agents to do and feel those Sentiments which are Right. The identification of this law with His will constitutes the Holiness of the Infinite God. Voluntary and disinterested obedience to this law constitutes the Virtue of all finite creatures. Virtue is capable of infinite growth, of endless approach to the Divine nature and to perfect conformity with the law. God has made all rational free agents for virtue, and all worlds for rational free agents. The Moral Law, therefore, not only reigns throughout His creation, (all its behests being enforced thereon by His omnipotence,) but is itself the reason why that creation exists."—pp. 62-63.

This is certainly good defining, and the passage we have Italicized has the true Transcendental ring. Indeed, the book is a system of Kantian Ethics, as the author herself says in her Preface ; and the tough old Königsberg professor has no reason to complain of his gentle expounder. Unlike most British writers,—with the grand exception of Sir William Hamilton,The greatest British metaphysician since Locke and Hume,—she understands Kant, admires and loves him, and so is worthy to develop his knotty sublimities This alone would be high praise; but we think she earns a more original and personal esteem.

The question of the second chapter she thus answers:—

“ The Moral Law is found in the Intuitions of the Human Mind. These: Intuitions are natural; but they are also revealed. Our Creator wrought them into the texture of our souls to form the groundwork of our thoughts, and made it our duty first to examine and then to erect upon them by reflection a Science of Morals. But He also continually aids us in such study, and He increases this aid in the ratio of our obedience. Thus Moral Intuitions are both Human and Divine, and the paradoxes in their nature are thereby solved. —p. 136.

This statement may, perhaps, be received without cavil by most readers ; but the reasoning on which it depends is the weakest part of the book, and we shall be surprised if some hard-headed divine, who fears that this doctrine of Intuition will pester his Church, does not find out the flaws in the argument. It will be urged, for instance, that, in confessing that the Science of Morals can never be as exact as that of Mathematics, because we have no terminology for Ethics so exact as for Geometry, she, in effect, yields the whole question, and leaves us in the old slough of doubt where Pyrrho and Pascal delighted to thrust us, and where the Church threatens to keep us, unless we will pay her tolls and pick our way along her turnpike. But though her major and minor premises may not be on the best terms with each other,—even though they may remind us of that preacher of whom Pierrepont Edwards said, ” If his text had the smallpox, his sermon would not catch it,” —her conclusion is sound, and as inspiring now as when the poet said,—

“Est Deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo,”—

or when George Fox trudged hither and thither over Europe with the same noble tune sounding in his ears.

In the third chapter the old topics are treated, which, according to Milton, the fallen angels discussed before Adam settled the debate by sinning,—

“Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,”—

and it is concluded that the Moral Law can be obeyed:—

“ 1st. Because the Human Will is free. 2d. Because this freedom, though involving present sin and suffering, is foreseen by God to result eventually in the Virtue of every creature endowed therewith."

In this chapter the history of the common doctrine of Predestination is admirably sketched, (pp. 159-164, note.) and the grounds for our belief in Free Will more clearly stated than we remember to have seen elsewhere. Especially fine is her method of reducing Foreordiuation to simple Ordination, by directing attention to the fact that with God there is no Past and Future, but an Endless Now ; as Tennyson sings In “ In Memoriam,”—

“ Oh, if indeed that eye foresee,
Or see, (in Him is no before,)”—

and as Dante sang five centuries ago.

But it is the last chapter which best shows the power of the author and the pure and generous spirit with which the whole book is filled. Here she shows why the Moral Law should be obeyed ; and dividing the advocates of Happiness as a motive into three classes, Euthumists, Public Eudaimonists, and Private Eudaimonists. she refutes them all and establishes her simple scheme, which she states in these words : —

“ The law itself, the Eternal Right, for right's own sake, that alone must be our motive, the spring of our resolution, the ground of our obedience. Deep from our inmost souls comes forth the mandate, the bare and simple law, claiming the command of our whole existence merely by its proper right, and disdaining alike to menace or to bribe."

The terms Euthumism and Eudaimonism are, perhaps, peculiar to this essay, and may need some explanation. The Euthumist is one who assumes moral pleasure as a sufficient reason why virtue should be sought; the Eudaimonist believes we should be virtuous for the sake of affectional, intellectual, and sensual pleasure ; if he means the pleasure of all mankind, lie is a Public Eudaimonist; but if lie means the pleasure of the individual, he is a Private Eudaimonist. Democritus is reckoned the first among Euthumists; and in England this school has been represented, among others, by Henry More and Cumberland, by Sharrock,1 Hutcheson, and Shaftesbury. Paley thrust himself among Public Eudaimonists, and our author well exposes his grovelling morals, aiming to produce the “ grealest happiness of the greatest number,” a system which has too long been taught among the students of our colleges and high schools. But he properly belongs to the Private Eudaimonists : for this interpreter of ethics to the ingenuous youth of England and America says, “ Virtue is the doing good to mankind in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness. According to which definition, the good of mankind is the subject, the will of God the rule, and everlasting happiness the motive of virtue.”

It is such heresies as this, and the still grosser pravities into which the ethics of expediency run, that this book will do much to combat. Nothing is more needed in our schools for both sexes than the systematic teaching of the principles here set forth; and we have no doubt this volume could be used as a text-book, at least with some slight omissions and additions, such as a competent teacher could well furnish. Portions of it, indeed, were some years since read by Mrs. Lowell to her classes, and are now incorporated in her admirable book, “ Seed Grain"; nor does there seem to be any good reason why it should not be introduced at Cambridge. With a short introduction containing the main principles of metaphysics, and with the omission of some rhetorical passages unsuited to a text-book, it might supplant the books of both intellectual and moral philosophy now in use in our higher schools.

But it is not as a school-book that this essay is to be considered ; it will find a large and increasing circle of readers among the mature and the cultivated, and these will perceive that few have thought so profoundly or written so clearly on these absorbing topics. Take, for example, the classification of possible beings, made in the first chapter:—

“ Proceeding on our premises, that the omnipotence of God is not to be supposed to include self-contradictions, we observe at the outset, that (so far as we can understand subjects so transcendent) there were only, in a moral point of view, three orders of beings possible in the universe:—1st. One Infinite Being. A Rational Free Agent, raised by the infinitude of his nature above the possibility of temptation. He is the only Holy Being. 2d. Finite creatures who are Rational Free Agents, but exposed by the finity of their natures to continual temptations. These beings are either Virtuous or Vicious. 3d. Finite creatures who are not rational nor morally free. These beings are Unmoral, and neither virtuous nor vicious.”—pp. 24—25.

Nothing can be shorter or more thorough than this statement, and, if accepted, it settles many points in theology as well as in ethics.

Then, too, the comparison, in the last chapter, of the Law of Honor, considered as a system of morals, with the systems of Paley and Bentham, shows a fine perception of the true relation of chivalry to ethics, and gives occasion for one of the most eloquent passages in the book : —

“ I envy not the moralist who could treat disdainfully of Chivalry. It was a marvellous principle, that which could make of plighted faith a law to the most lawless, of protection to weakness a pride to the most ferocious. While the Church taught that personal duty consisted in scourging* and fastings, and social duty in the slaughter of Moslems and burning of Jews, Chivalry roused up a man to reverence himself through his own courage and truth, and to treat the weakest of his fellow-creatures with generosity and courtesy. .... Recurring to its true character, the Law of Honor, when duly enlarged and rectified, becomes highly valuable. We perceive, that, amid all its imperfections and aberrations, it has been the truest voice of intuition, amid the lamentations of the believer in ‘total depravity,’ and the bargaining of the expediency-seeking experimentalist. While the one represented Virtue as a Nun and the other as a Shopwoman, the Law of Honor drew her as a Queen,—faulty, perhaps, but free-born and royal. Much service has this law done to the world; it has made popular modes of thinking and acting far nobler than those inculcated from many a pulpit; and the result is patent, that many a 'publican and sinner,’ many an opera-frequenting, betting, gambling man of the world, is a far safer person with whom to transact business than the Pharisee who talks most feelingly of the ‘frailties of our fallen nature.'"—pp. 267-270.

The learning shown in the book, though not astonishing, like Sir William Hamilton’s, is sufficient and always at the author’s service. The text throughout, and especially the notes on Causation, Predestination, Original Sin, and Necessary Truths, will amply support our opinion. But better than either learning or logic is that noble and devout spirit pervading every page, ami convincing the reader, that, whether the system advanced be true or false, it is the result of a genuine experience, and the guide of a pure and generous life.

The volume is neatly printed, hut lacks an index sadly, and shows some errors resulting from the distance between the author and the proof-reader. Such is the misuse of the words “ woof” and “warp” on page 56; evidently a slip of the pen, since the same terms are correctly used elsewhere in the volume.

  1. Sharrock is a name unfamiliar to most readers. His 'Υπόϑεσις 'ηϑική, published in 1660, contains the first clear statement of Euthumism made by any Englishman. See p. 223.