The Eternal and Intrinsic Reasons of Good and Evil, by John Edwards, 1637-1716.
June 16, 2018
A Sermon preached at the commencement at Cambridge, on Sunday the 2nd day of July, 1699
Thy righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and thy law is the truth. Psalm 119:142
It is not to be doubted that the subject of this Psalm is the Moral Law, or the precepts of just and righteous living, which are contained in the Ten Commandments, and which we find interspersed in Moses's Writings, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy. The royal prophet directing here his words to God, calls these his righteousness and his law, and he adds that this righteousness is everlasting, and that this law is the truth. The most easy and obvious meaning of the former clause of which words is this, that this Divine law which he is speaking of, had its existence from everlasting, it was always what it is now. Which is of the same import of what he saith in the 160th verse of this Psalm, Thy word is true from the beginning, i.e. from everlasting, for these two are synonymous, as appears from Prov. 8. 23. The rules and measures of what is just and right were determined and fixed from eternity. And besides, they are of perpetual and eternal obligation, they are such laws as shall never be repealed: whence our Psalmist says in another place, All God's commandments are sure, they stand fast for ever and ever. Ps. 111. 7, 8. For what is good or evil in its own nature, can at no time, or upon any account be altered. Which brings me to the interpretation of the latter clause of the words, thy law is the truth, i.e. these rules of moral righteousness must needs be immutable and perpetual, because they are no imaginary and precarious things, nor do they depend upon human institution and arbitrament; but they are real and true in themselves, they are solid and substantial, there being an intrinsic goodness and excellency in them. On this account they have subsistence and reality, and therefore may properly and strictly be said to be, and to be true. Which is a notion that a profound man among the Gentiles had long since attained to; for he tells us, that the law of nature or true morality is the finding of being (Plato).
This then is the proposition that I will entertain you with at present, that the reasons of good and evil are eternal and unchangeable; that there are such things as right and wrong, without any positive law or constitution; that these had the start of all human contracts and customs; and, in short, that religion and virtue are ingrafted in our very nature, and are every ways suited to the frame of rational creatures. This I will evince:
1. From the nature of God.
2. From what we find in the mind of Man.
3. From the behaviour and actions of Mankind.
4. From the universal consent of the World.
1. From the nature of God.
God's nature or mind is the eternal foundation of goodness and righteousness, and therefore these cannot but be real and eternal. It is certain that the essential bonity, which is in men's actions, is grounded on the chief good, that which Plato frequently calls goodness itself, and the idea and pattern of all goodness. For whence could goodness be fetched, but from this Divine source? It could neither be derived from angels nor men, (and we can't think of any rank of beings else whence there is a probability of its being derived) because they themselves are from God, and therefore it would be unreasonable to think, that that which is best in them was not from Him. Yea, from Him alone it must necessarily be, in whose perfect nature the ideas and platforms of it were from eternal ages: for as the ideas of truth were eternally existent in God's understanding, so his will was pregnant and replenished with goodness and holiness. Which is a notion that we cannot but form of the Divine Being, because he being most perfect, we can't possibly conceive of him without apprehensions of both these, viz. his understanding fraught with truth, and his will with goodness. Now, from this eternal fountain the goodness and righteousness of men have their original, and consequently they can't but be real and true, and have an inward worth in them, because whatever partakes of the Divine nature and perfection is really worthy and excellent. It is then the holy nature of the Divine Being that is the prime source, as well as rule of human sanctity and righteousness. It is this on which they depend, for it is the pattern of them. Goodness in us is but a copy of that original, that essential and immutable goodness, which is in the supreme good.
This is the true root of all rectitude, justice and righteousness. The eternal laws of just and good, which are in the Divine mind, are the pillars on which the moral goodness of rational beings is founded. Hence it is that the laws of good and evil, of just and unjust among men, are in their own nature firm and solid, and never to be abolished, for they are eternally good, and grounded on the unchangeableness of the Supreme Being. The reasons of them did exist from eternity in the Divine nature, and they were ever conformable to the upright will of God, and for that reason cannot be otherwise. Thus it appears, that moral righteousness being originally founded in the being and nature of God, must consequently be immutable.
2. From what we find in the mind of man.
The intrinsic and unchangeable nature of it is demonstrated, not only from our tracing it up to its first head, but from its being seated by God in the mind of man. For this is the very image and portraiture of God himself, and consequently, seeing truth and goodness are essential to the Divine nature (as was said before) these excellencies are also inseparable from the soul of man. And therefore from the nature of human souls, as such, it were easy to prove that there were innate notions, not only of True and False, but of Good and Evil, imprinted on them at their first make. And though we have not the use of these original notions presently, or in our infancy and childhood (as some urge) yet it is ridiculous to infer thence, that they are not in the soul: for on the same ground it might be proved, that a man has no rational soul for several years, because the faculties of it do not actually exert themselves. But we are sure that those mental impressions were in all men from the beginning, because they are the first emanations of their natural frame, as they are reasonable beings, and as their souls resemble the Divinity. Hence it follows, as a clear and incontestable truth, that, though by the early apostasy of the first man our human nature is depraved, our faculties are corrupted, and we have an inward proclivity to what is vicious, so that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to enable us to do any good that can be acceptable to God: yet there are remaining in us, as we are human creatures and rational agents, natural principles and sentiments of morality. And therefore we may observe, that one (Calvin), who is an unquestionable asserter of the original depravity of mankind, is yet very positive in this, that there is in the souls of men a sense of Divinity and Religion, and that even by a natural instinct; and accordingly he spends a whole chapter to prove the existence of this inbred principle in the minds of all men. And truly, every man alive, that is attentive and unprejudiced, may feel this in him as soon as he is arrived to the use of reason, (for he can't expect it should actually display it self till then) or whenever he has occasion given him to exercise his thoughts concerning moral and divine things. To this the great Apostle refers in Rom. 2. 14, 15. when he tells us, that the Gentiles who have not the law, (i. e. the written law) do by nature (i. e. by virtue of these radical notions of moral goodness in their minds) the things contained in the law, they are pushed on to it by this natural principle within them. Hence it is that though they have not the law, yet they are a law unto themselves, because they have this inward law in their own minds, which instructs them what to do, as to the great duties of natural religion. Therefore he adds, that they show the work of the law written in their hearts, namely in these original characters by God's own hand. So that nothing could be said more plainly to establish these inward signatures and impresses of goodness on the soul.
And they were engraved there for great and excellent purposes in the life of man: whence we may further evince, that there are indeed such inbred principles and notions. There being so many ways of delusion and error in the world, such a diversity of avocations from religion and goodness, and the worship of the Divine Being, and such charming temptations every where to a virtuous life; it was requisite there should be such inward directors as these in men’s breasts. There being such impediments to truth and goodness as passion, prejudice, interest, pleasures, and these continually operating upon us; it was necessary there should be something within us to remind us of what is true and what is good, something within us that opposes it self to all the foresaid obstacles and hindrances. There was a necessity that there should be a Divine principle in our souls, which should be as it were a continual fund to our consciences, always to supply and furnish them with virtuous dictates. Amongst the most rude and barbarous people it is this that keeps up some kind of notion of honesty and goodness. Yea, and among those that are civilised, these would be in danger of being lost, if there were not this principle rooted in their minds. All that is just and right would have been banished out of the world, unless this prevalent inmate had acted its part, and kept us from being wholly bereft of them. We had long since been absorbed of atheism and profaness, if this had not powerfully secured us. Were it not for this active spark, the fire of virtue would have been extinguished, and it would have been impossible to preserve it in the midst of that deluge of vice, which has broken in upon us. God took care therefore, that there should be ingrafted in the heart of every man, learned or illiterate, these moral impressions which I am speaking of, which will not suffer mankind to be wholly alienated from a sense of what is good and virtuous. It may be attributed to this, that, notwithstanding the general depravation and corruption, there is yet a face of religion in the world. For it is an undoubted truth, that this buoys up goodness when it is sinking, this supports it when it is falling, this keeps it alive when it is even expiring. So absolutely necessary was the implanting of these notions in men’s minds from their very birth. And then (which is the thing I have been proving) these innate principles of Good and Evil thus implanted in us, are a certain and unquestionable eviction of the intrinsic excellency of moral religion, and of all virtuous and just actions, which are but transcripts and exemplifications of those original conceptions placed by God in the minds of men.
3. From the behaviour and actions of Mankind.
As the real and unchangeable nature of moral righteousness is proved from its conformity to the supreme and eternal good, and from the images of good, which our minds are furnished with from our birth, so it may be evidenced from the constant behaviour and practice of mankind afterwards. This I will make appear from these following particulars:
(a) From men’s excusing their sins.
(b) From their desiring secrecy when they commit them.
(c) From the regrets and remorses which they feel afterwards.
(d) From the fear of punishment which haunts them.
(e) From that dislike and hatred which even bad men themselves have of vice.
(a) From men’s excusing their sins.
First, the intrinsic excellency of virtue is manifested from men’s excusing their sins and vitious practises, and devolving them upon others. This was in the world as soon as sin itself. Adam would needs cast his transgression and guilt upon his relative, and she put it off to the serpent. This has been the practice of sinners ever since: though they know themselves to be really criminal, yet they endeavour to throw off their faults, and they use all sorts of palliations and pretences to clear themselves; and particularly they are wont to usurp the names and titles of virtue to conceal their evil deeds, fondly disguising these latter under a show and resemblance of the former. But whilst they do so, they confess, that virtue is excellent and laudable, otherwise they would not emulate the likeness of it: and they acknowledge, that vice is in itself base and reproachful, and that the rational nature of man is averse to it, else they would not excuse it, and shift it off: nay, 'tis certain they would own it, if it were good and praise worthy. But they have natural convictions of the contrary, which makes them strive to clear themselves of it: and these evasions are a palpable proof that vice is a thing opposite to the reasonable frame of their souls, and is of its own nature evil, and that there is a distinction between just and unjust, right and wrong, founded in the nature of things.
(b) From their desiring secrecy when they commit them.
Again, this also appears from men's desiring of secrecy when they commit sins, and after they have committed them. For though one reason of their skulking and absconding is, because they would not be defeated in what they undertake, or be detected when it is performed; yet this is another reason of their affecting of privacy, namely, because they are ashamed to act those vile things in the eyes of the world. Vice is so ugly and deformed, that they would not have it seen: and when it is, they blush and are confounded at their own evil doings. Which is signified to us in that expostulation Rom. 6. 21, What profit had ye in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? This blushing argues an inward turpitude in vitious actions: whereas virtue, which is good in it self, is daring, and carries confidence with it. If there were not a real blemish and stain in unjust and lewd practises, why should men be ashamed of them? Why should they be put out of countenance, and look like malefactors? Why should they fly to their coverts, and run into corners, and fear a discovery? There was an early example of this in the first sinners, they retired, and hid themselves, Gen. 3. 8. On which an ancient and pious Father of the Christian Church has these remarkable words, Why did Adam, after he had sinned, hide himself, seeing at that time there was no written law? The reason was, because he had a natural inbred knowledge that he had done ill, he being self-instructed in the knowledge of virtue (St. Chrysostom Hom. 12. ad Pop. Antioch.) And thence arose in him that inward bashfulness and dejection of soul after the commission of sin, and thence he fondly attempted to hide not only himself, but his crime from God. And it is observable that Cain refused to discover his murdering of his brother; when God demanded of him where he was, his surly reply was, he knew not, Gen. 4. 9. Which concealing of vice argues the intrinsic evil of it, for why else is it masked with privacy and retirement, and kept from the knowledge of others as much as it is possible, yea even of those sometimes that can't hurt us? This is an argument that virtue is good and lovely, and that the contrary is vile and detestable, and that the mind of man naturally approves of moral goodness, and dislikes vice and immorality.
(c) From the regrets and remorses which they feel afterwards.
Further, the regrets and remorses of sinners for their acting contrary to the Divine laws, are certain testimonies of this truth. Why do they call themselves to an account, and arraign, and pass sentence upon themselves for what they have done? Why are they uneasy and dissatisfied, and find an unspeakable trouble in their minds? Is not this from natural conscience, and those inbred impressions, which are in the soul of every man? Yes, without doubt, these cause them to rebuke and chastise themselves, and that very severely, when they offend against these inward dictates. Thence come those vexations and torments which wilful transgressors feel in their breasts, yea though their faults be kept secret, and none knows them but themselves. Notwithstanding this, they are troubled and disquieted, and as the Satirist well remarks of such men,
Tacitâ sudant praecordia cult (they sweat with the secret consciousness of culpa).
But especially the more open and profligate sinners have frequent experience of these inward inquietudes, sweating and agonies, which render them a plague and torment to themselves. Cain complained, that his iniquity (for so the original word should be rendered) was greater than he could bear, Gen. 4. 13. That is, the guilt of his heinous sin became an insupportable burden to him. So Judas, from the horror of his guilt, sunk into despair. And who sees not that the usual effects of great and flagitious enormities are pain and torture of mind, deliriums of soul and body, and the wasting and macerating of the flesh and spirits, by continual restlessness and disturbance? The ground of it is obvious, for sin is a violent distorting of the natural and primitive temper of man, and therefore it cannot but create extreme anguish and perturbation. One reason why men are displeased with themselves after the commission of what is immoral, is because they find they have acted contrary to their native principle, because they have done something that is unsuitable to the rational nature which they are endued with. It appears hence that sin is naturally evil, and that it is an affront to our reasons and understandings to transgress the laws of morality. Thus a man's own mind establishes the equity and goodness of these laws, and convinces him that the foundations of moral righteousness are sure and stable.
(d) From the fear of punishment which haunts them.
Moreover, this may be made evident from the fear of punishment, which haunts and possesses the minds of evil men. Thus Cain, the first murderer, was afraid that every one that found him would slay him: he had a perpetual dread of the fatal recompense, which was the merit of his villany. And natural conscience tells all other sinners that they deserve punishment: they know the judgment of God, that they who commit such things, are worthy of death, as the Apostle speaks: and this knowledge unavoidably breeds fear and dread. Some would needs persuade us that this passion is raised by politic heads, by wise rulers and governors, merely to awe their dastard subjects: but it is evident that this is a falsity, because Princes and Rulers themselves are liable to these impressions; nay, we know they actually have been under the force and prevalency of such principles. Belshazar the great Babylonian monarch fell into fits of shaking and trembling, when the hand-writing on the wall put him in mind of his profaness and debauchery, and the just desserts of both. King Herod after the murder of John Baptist was restless in his mind, and had the terrible sight of that holy man continually represented to his fancy, and he thought he was risen from the dead, and was come to torment him. Tiberius the Emperor was not able to conceal the terrors and affrightments of his conscience, after all his unnatural lusts and cruelties. Nero after all his prodigious villainies could not dissemble his horrors, and his being haunted with spirits, and tormented with furies and flames. Which plainly shows, that this dread of mind is no politic invention, no feigned passion and representation, no idle phantom; but that it is a real thing, and flows from the natural dictates of the mind, and not these from fear, as some would suggest. Why should men be afraid of the Divine Being, if they deserved not his displeasure? And how can they deserve it, unless they have done something amiss, i.e. broken some law, which they were obliged to keep? There must then be some obligation on man from nature to observe such and such laws: for I speak even of those who have thrown off all obligations but this. Their being conscious to themselves that they have not acted as they ought, and that thereby they are become guilty, creates this timorousness and dread in them, and gives them an apprehension of the great day of doom.
(e) From that dislike and hatred which even bad men themselves have of vice.
In the next place I argue from that dislike and hatred, which even bad men themselves have of some vices, and from that great esteem which they have of some virtues. Pride is universally disrelished, and the very persons who cherish it in themselves, abhor it in others. Nothing is more generally abominated than a proud and arrogant man; and on the contrary, nothing is more valued, loved, and caressed than one that is humble and meek. Even those very persons, whose practice is a remonstrance against humility, have at the same time an inward liking of this virtue, yea and outwardly express their approbation of it. The avaricious and sordid niggard is scorned and laugh at by every one: but the liberal and generous are applauded by all. Clean and chased discourse meets with an universal acceptance: but obscenity and ribaldry, though dressed in the garb of wit, are generally nauseous and offensive, and the organ of hearing is as it were disobliged, and even hurt by them; and oftentimes the hearer blushes, because the speaker doth not. A liar is a title of the greatest reproach and infamy among men: a lying tongue is not only one of those things which the Lord hateth, but 'tis as odious to all men: whereas a plain and open speaking, without any dissimulation or reserve, is a very graceful and amiable thing, and nothing is more valued and commended in the world. Again, oppression, violence, rapine, persecution, and especially if these proceed to bloodshed and slaughter, are hated of all persons, yea of those who practice these vices most of all.
Julius Caesar had ever in his mouth that of Euripides, If right at all may be violated, it must be for the sake of a crown; but in other matters let us be exactly just. The greatest invaders acknowledge justice to be good, and it is interest only that warps their judgment. The Banditi and Rapparees rob for mere gain, and even Assassins and Ruffians must be well paid to do their work; which shows there is no temptation in the thing itself. A common thief had rather find than take away another man's goods; and whilst he does the latter, he disapproves of it. Or say, that he approves of it in himself, yet he detests it in all others. So perfidiousness and treachery meet with a catholic abhorrence; and those who reward these practises, yet hate the things themselves, and the actors of them are always odious in the world, and sometimes signally punished by them who set them on work. But faithfulness, sincerity, honesty, frankness and true-heartedness are beloved by all men. And it were easy to show in other instances, that vicious and immoral actions are loathed even by sinners themselves, and that they who dare not practice wisdom and virtue, yet praise and commend it, and are willing to see it thrive in the world. Thus from the behaviour and deportment of men, even those who are of the worst sort, it is evident that virtue is praise-worthy in its own nature, and that there is an inward principle in all men, that makes them pay respect to goodness and honesty, and to disparage what is vicious and unlawful.
In the last place, I will prove the laws of moral goodness to be intrinsic and natural from their being universally received. For that of Tully is an unquestionable maxim, When all people agree in a thing, we are to look upon it as the law of nature. Now, it is evident that there is among all men an agreement, as to the main, about the notion of Good and Evil. Just and Right are every where, and among all persons the same, as fire burns here and in Persia, (to use the words of the famous Stagyrite.) We are told by Valerius Maximus, that the very barbarous Scythians took care of their fathers tombs, and religiously preserved them; whereupon he makes this seasonable remark, Nature, the first and the best of things, is the mistress of piety, so that we need not be taught and instructed in it. And again in the one place, Solid virtue is born with us rather than made and fashion'd. And indeed it must needs be so, because the notices and impressions of Good and Evil on men’s minds are universal: and it is impossible they should be otherwise, because they are natural, for nature universally spreads itself in every individual. Hence is that common consent in all men concerning the grand points of morality: they are voted to be reasonable and just, by the whole assembly of mankind throughout the world.
I know this is opposed by the learned Mr Selden, and some others, especially of late, who hold that universal consent is no argument to prove the law of nature. Or rather, they say, there is no such thing as universal consent, there being so many various opinions and practices in morality and religion. But I desire these following things may be considered, which will fully answer the suggestions of those who oppose this doctrine.
First, I grant that God has judicially given over some people to a reprobate sense, and that because they have given themselves over first to their lusts, and have wilfully shut their eyes against the light. Hence it is that they have in many things corrupted and distorted the law of nature, and then it is no wonder, that they have been permitted to fall into the most irrational practises, as that of idolatry, and the like.
But I add next, that this corruption is not in the first and general principles of nature, but in some undue inferences and deductions thence. Thus in the case of polytheism or idolatry, which is the adoring of false gods, and was ever a catholic crime among the common sort of heathens, there is the general dictate of natural religion kept up, viz. the worshipping of a deity, though they are so ignorant and corrupted as to conclude this and the other thing to be a God, though they are not. So there is no man or nation extant, who think it lawful to hurt or injure any one: but there is some disagreement as to the particular inferences, which may arise from these premises; and in some particular instances, that may be thought by some to be hurtful and injurious, which is not deemed so by others. And thus those usages among barbarous nations, which are so far different from ours, may be reconciled, as namely, their eating the dead, instead of burying them; and their dispatching their old sick parents out of the world, which they look upon as a courtesy done to them, and several the like practises. In which the first and general principles of morality are not violated, but only some false conclusions are drawn from them. Notwithstanding which, the main and essential laws of Good and Evil are the same, and are owned to be so.
Again, with particular relation to Mr Selden's objection (which a late Writer hath borrowed from him, and makes great use of) viz. That there is no natural and universal law of morality, because the Gentiles are so vicious, and act so contrary to the light of reason; I answer, that when I assert the law of nature to be universal, I mean, that it prevails among all men in the world that are of sound minds, and who carefully attend to the dictates of natural conscience, and who use their understandings, and make reflections, and exercise their faculties. But if there be some (and too many there are) who are stupid and sottish, and attend not to the inbred notions of their minds, (whereby these notions are in a manner defaced, and almost extinguished) I am not to answer for these. When I speak of universal consent, I understand it of those that think and consider, and are not wont to debauch and distemper their reasons, as those rude and savage Gentiles do. Wherefore we are not at all concerned for the Brasilians or Caribes, no nor for the Soldanians and Hotentots, with the noise of whom our ears are mightily grated of late. The strange behaviour of these people is no real reproach to human nature, nor any impeachment of the general laws of morality, which all people agree in who rouse their inward principle, and give heed to it. And thence I gather that the precepts of virtue are immovable and unalterable, for they are fixed and riveted into the very nature of mankind, or else there would not be an universal agreement about them.
I might go on to farther proofs of the intrinsic nature of Good and Evil, from those absurd consequences, which would follow from the contrary.
First, if there be no such thing, and if, notwithstanding what hath been alleged, Virtue and Vice are casual and contingent, then our faculties were given us to cheat and abuse us, and they are continually imposed upon, and that about their proper objects: which is a doctrine that would destroy even a Deity, and we could say nothing to prove there is such a being. Or, allowing a God, it would be a reproach to his goodness and wisdom, to bestow such mental powers upon us as are constantly deceived, and to implant such notions in the souls of all men as are false and erroneous, and which have nothing real and solid in them.
Secondly, this also would be a consequence from the premises, that we may live and act as we please: for if there be no fixed laws and rules of goodness and righteousness, then nothing can be said to be lawful, and consequently nothing can be said to be unlawful: or what is lawful to day, may be unlawful tomorrow. For if there be not any inward reason of the moral laws enjoined us by God, if they be not in themselves, and in their abstract nature good; he may prescribe us other laws, and those contrary to these which we now have; and so God may command us to hate him, and to hurt and mischief our neighbours. If these things are not intrinsically evil, so that they can never be good, they may in time become our duty.
Thirdly, this is another consequence, that our happiness would be precarious and uncertain: for the happiness of rational creatures depends on the goodness of their actions. And by this means we should be wholly unacquainted with the great end of our lives, which is the thing that is to steer us in this world, and to direct us in all we undertake. These are some of the egregious blunders and monstrous absurdities which attend the contrary opinion, and may serve to confirm us in this weighty point, that there is an intrinsic goodness in virtuous actions, and an intrinsic evil in vitious ones, and that the reasons of both are congenite to our rational nature, and flow from it, and are ever agreeable to it.
Thus I have established the doctrine which I undertook to discourse of. And it was necessary to do it, because though the generality of mankind (as was said before) do unanimously aver, that goodness is not placed in the arbitrary opinions of men, but in nature itself; yet there have been of old, and are at this day those who contradict and oppose it. The Ancient Scepticks were infamous for this, who had learnt of their Master Pyrrho, that there is no difference between Good and Evil by nature, but only by Laws and Custom Laertius acquaints us, that it was the positive opinion of one of that sort of men, that a wise man will not stick to commit sacrilege, or adultery, or to steal, whenever he hath a fit opportunity; for none of these (saith he) have any turpitude in them in their own nature, if we can but lay aside the vulgar apprehension concerning them, which the rabble of fools and ignorant people have taken up. Tully testifies concerning the Epicureans, that they held honest and Iust to be cassum quiddam, & inani vocis sono decoratum, a vain and frivolous thing, set forth and commended to the world by a mere empty sound of words. This also was the sentiment of some that pretended to be Christians, as the Gnostics, and especially Carpocrates, who was a great man with that party: he with much earnestness avowed, that all moral actions are indifferent, and that all the good or evil that is said to be in them, is founded not on truth, but fancy, as Theodoret bears witness concerning him, and quotes Irenaeus for it.
But to come down lower, they have, it seems, a power in the Church of Rome to change the nature of vice and virtue. It is agreed on by the the chiefest writers of that Communion, that the Pope has such a plenitude of power, that he can dispense with just and right, and any law of God, excepting only the articles of faith. So saith the gloss upon the canon law, and Panormitan approves of it. Bellarmine, their great champion, speaks home to the business, If the Pope (saith he) could err so far as to command the practice of vice, and to forbid the practice of virtue, the Church in that case is obliged, unless it would sin against conscience, to believe vice to be good, and virtue to be evil. Judge now whether the reasons of good and evil be not taken away by the Church of Rome, when it can alter the property of Virtue and Vice, and when their people are bound in conscience to take one for the other. Judge whether they do not ascribe more to their great Pontiff than can be attributed to God himself: for certainly it is so far from being in the power of any man to alter the natural and moral law, and to take away the obligation of it, that it is not within the verge of Divine power itself. It is the decision of the famous Grotius (who is always very wary when he speaks concerning what God can do, as indeed it doth become us: yet it is the peremptory decision I say, of that great man) in his excellent book of the Rights of Peace and War, God himself cannot change this law of natural goodness, he cannot make that which is intrinsically evil to be no evil. And the reason is, because then he would not be God, for his nature would be changed, which is a thing utterly impossible, and the very supposition of it is to be abhorred.
The great Gallick Philosopher, who discourses so admirably concerning the Moral Virtues, was enclined to think, that they were not founded on immoveable reasons: for in some places of his Epistles and in his Answers, where he holds that goodness as well as truth eternally depended on the Divine Will and its free determination, he seems to mean that God could have determined them otherwise, if he had pleased: and so, that which is now good, might have been evil. But this mistaken notion of this learned man arose from his not considering and remembering, that the Will of God is always the same as to its real intrinsic nature, and therefore what it now is, it ever was, and can never be otherwise, and consequently goodness is invariable, and that which is good now can't be evil at another time. Which if that excellent person had bore in his mind, he would not have argued from God's Will in that manner which he seems to do.
But I am sorry to find that in our own nation likewise there are those who oppose the intrinsic nature of moral goodness, and render it dubious and arbitrary. Among these ought to be mentioned in the first place that known person, in whose state of nature (which he lays down as the foundation of his whole system) nothing is virtuous or vitious, just or unjust; for he holds that these arise only from compact and society. The Magistrate is Mr. Hobbes's God, the Prince is the maker of good and evil, and he can unmake them when he pleases. Which is said well enough for such a Philosopher as holds a man is nothing else but body or carcass.
Another learned writer (though a professed enemy to the former) resolves all moral philosophy into Geometrical and MechanickPrinciples: which perhaps was designed on purpose by that profound and sagacious person to convince some in an age of mathematics. He is followed and vouched by another, who undertakes to improve him, and to thrust this conceit on the world, that experimental observation is the standard of all goodness and morality: but I believe you will agree with me in this, that this is spoken rather like a virtuoso than a divine.
There is another, who in his Brief Disquisition of the Law of Nature, has refined upon both the former writers, and makes it his work to show that the proof of Natural Laws or Dictates of Reason, can be drawn only from the use of our senses. He holds, that by the motion impress's on the organs of our senses, God delineates the ideas or images of all moral actions on our minds. He thinks there is no notion of moral goodness or evil but what is communicated to us by these, and consequently it is not innate. Though by the by it is well worth our observing, that he freely grants, that beasts derive not all their knowledge from their senses, but are born with peculiar appetites and inclinations, and have natural instincts, or impressions stamped by God on their very natures. So unkind are these Philosophic Masters to their own species, as to grudge it the prerogative and excellency of a brute. They not only degrade mankind, but thrust them below the rank of irrational beings. But if you would know the particular way how moral sentiments are derived to us, they tell you, this is the method, and they admit of no other; God makes external causes operate on our bodily organs, and by this operation and motion, in a certain and determinate manner, we attain to a notion of what is vitious or virtuous. It is by the influence of outward objects, and them only, that all principles of morality come to be known to us. But to disprove this, and at the same time to baffle the like doctrine of another late author:
First, I ask, how can general notions of morality be produced by the external senses? Is there any cognation at all between abstract ideas of goodness and mere bodily objects? Can a man imagine that universal and complex apprehensions can be the off-spring of the particular matters of corporeal sense?
Secondly, if this author and his friends be in the right, then those beings that are destitute of bodily sense can have no notion of good and evil. Supposing angels to be incorporeal, morality is a thing not known to them; nor is it known to separate souls, nor saints in heaven, nay not to God himself; because these are exempted from bodily senses, and consequently they are not capable of understanding any moral propositions.
Thirdly, this opinion, that natural motion produces moral goodness, is such a confounding and jumbling together of physicks and ethicks, that none who have clear and distinct conceptions of things will admit of it.
Fourthly and lastly, this opinion makes all morality contingent and uncertain, for all natural and bodily motion (on which he holds it depends) is so: at one time or other it varies. External and corporeal causes are shifting and fickle: objects work on us differently, yea the operations of the same objects are not always the same; and therefore moral goodness, which is founded on these, is no fixed thing, but is unsteady and floating: we know not where to have it, according to this author.
These are the reasons why I cannot approve of this new method, which he has taken to demonstrate the truth of morality, or rather to cashier and defeat it. Which he chooses rather to do, than to acknowledge any inbred principle in the soul of man.
I could have wished that Mr. Norris had not so contemptibly reflected on the inbred notions and characters of truth and goodness on men’s minds, as to reproach them with the title of mere jargon and unintelligible cant; especially seeing one that has larded some of his writings with so many unintelligible high-flown strains, and platonick gibberish, (and even in the present matter which is before us talks of the presentialness of the ideal world to our souls, which is the Divine Essence, wherein we see and understand all things) might have been more favourable in his censure.
Another late ingenious author will by no means hear of natural and congenite principles of morality, but roundly tells us in these express words, that men come to the knowledge of moral principles and duties by tradition: their fathers taught them, and their grandfathers their fathers, and so up to Adam the common parent of all. And a little after he uses such language as this, moral duties are conveyed to all the world as spinning and weaving, and such like inventions. Whereby he confounds the notions of natural and revealed religion, and yet it is observable that in those dialogues he first distinctly discourses of Natural Religion, and then of revealed. Whence it is evident that he not only contradicts himself, but mightily gratifies the Theist, whom he has to deal with, and pretends to confute: but he not only baulks one of the greatest and strongest proofs we have of the truth of moral notions and offices, but he ridicules all morality, by setting it on no other bottom than what the trade of weavers and spinsters has. Thus we pull down that with our own hands which we pretend to build up; and even whilst some among us are confuting of Deism, they promote and advance it.
There is another writer yet behind, who seems to show himself as backward to own a natural principle of religion, as any of the forenamed ones; for he sticks not to say, that there are no notions naturally imprinted on the mind; for then, saith he, children and idiots would have them. But it is certain he might as strongly have argued, that there is no reason or prudence in mankind, because neither children nor idiots are observed to exercise these. The logic is every whit as good. And in another place, conformably to his denial of all practical principles in the mind of man, he speaks very doubtfully of virtue it self; The name or sound of VIRTUE, saith he, is hard to be understood, it is liable to much uncertainty in its signification: and the thing it stands for is much contended about, and difficult to be known. And again, VIRTUES and SINS are words of uncertain signification, and among different men stand for different things. At another time he confesses, that he makes the law, whereby we judge of Virtue and Vice, to be nothing else but the consent of private men. And in the same place he is positive, that the measure of what is every where called and esteemed Virtue and Vice, is approbation or dislike, praise or blame. And again, nothing else but that which has the allowance of public esteem is virtue. Which words (though he attempts to correct them in a later edition) I am somewhat inclined to understand according to the plain and obvious meaning of them, and the rather, because it is probable, that as in other very considerable points, so here he symbolizes with the Philosopher of Malmsbury, in whose steps he affects to tread, and borrows some of his thoughts. For as he follows him in his opinion of the necessity of only one fundamental article of Christian faith, and in his notion of thinking matter, and particularly in that of the likelihood or possibility of the materiality of human souls, and of their tendency (on that principle) to mortality, and in his contempt of some parts of the Holy Scripture, and in his avowed disbelief of the resurrection of the same body, and in his ridiculing of the received explication of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and in his general favouring of Scepticism and Infidelity, and in his denial of natural and inbred notions; so likewise he seems to be an humble imitator of the foresaid Philosopher, in his belief of the precarious and arbitrary nature of morality: though it is true in a flourish he pretends at another time, that Morality as well as Mathematicks may be demonstrated. Surely that proposition aforementioned, viz. Nothing else but that which has the allowance of public esteem is virtue, may pass for the Leviathan epitomised.
And here by the way I would observe this to you, that the persons who speak contemptibly of revealed religion or any part of it, are, if you look narrowly into them, and their writings, as deficient in their apprehensions and esteem of that which is natural and merely moral, which yet they so much pretend to cry up. Whilst they strike at the principles of faith, and the fundamental articles and mysteries of Christianity, they cut the sinews and take away the props of morality it self, and discard the true grounds and reasons of it. Which shows that their design and project is against virtue in general, and that their aim is to put all out of order, to transpose and ranverse what ever has any respect to religion, and to confound every thing belonging to it, and thereby to expose religion itself, and to make sport for the atheistical and scoffing part of the world.
The greater reason therefore is there that we should be settled in our minds concerning these things, and that we should confirm and establish ourselves more and more in this necessary and important truth, (which I have endeavoured to make good) that there are eternal and immutable reasons of good and evil, that there is in all immoral actions a repugnancy to a rule of right in our own breasts, as well as in the mind of our Creator. This is the true account of moral righteousness, namely, that it is built on the nature of God, and of human souls, and the universal behaviour of mankind. So that, to speak plainly, those that designedly set themselves against the doctrine of inbred principles of good and evil, detract from the Divinity itself, and from the essential nature and guise of mankind. And we may assure ourselves that such a persuasion is the most debauching principle in the world, and that those who wilfully and obstinately maintain it have a very ill design upon mankind. Which was the only ground of my so free and plain dealing with them, for 'tis in vain to palliate where we design to cure.
It remains that in the last place I should show the Virtue and Efficacy, the Influence and Usefulness of the premises: which might be done in several particulars, but I will offer only this one practical inference from the whole. Let the doctrine discoursed of be a mighty incentive to all virtue and goodness. Seeing these are consonant to our natural principles and dispositions, we have all the reason imaginable to comply with them. Why should we contradict our own propensions, and be rebels to ourselves? As it is in natural motion, not crooked lines, but right and straight ones are aimed at: so it is in morals, man's reasonable nature aims at that which is his direct and plain duty: and when he deviates from this right path, he acts against his true primitive temper and genius. Let us consider then, that we ought to be virtuous, because our very nature obliges us to it. We are invited to be just and good by something that is within us, and by the intrinsic beauty of goodness itself. We should prize religion and a holy life, because they commend themselves to us by their own inherent and abstract worth. Let us not be backward in the practice of virtue, seeing its own native excellency encourages us to it. Those were curious and choice words of a Gentile writer, This is one great help and advantage, saith he, to virtue, to be made good, by a congenite preparation: and such is the inbred principle, that I have been speaking of, whereby we are naturally inclined to live virtuously. For though (as was said in the beginning of this discourse) by the depravity derived from our first progenitors, both our understandings and wills are miserably shattered; yet these original impressions are not effaced, because they are of the very nature of man as he is a rational creature. Therefore these cannot be wholly expunged out of men’s hearts, they are the indelible stamp of God on every soul. And the more conformable any man's life and actions are to them, the more clear and bright is his apprehension and judgment concerning the truth and reality, as well as the excellency of them.
Wherefore let us descend into our own breasts, and be acquainted with ourselves: and by that means we shall come to find in our minds a stock of principles, which will very much endear religion to us: for as it will hugely please us to see a great part of our religion born in us and bred up with us, so it will be a powerful motive to us to exert those virtues which are so fitted to our natures, and, as I may say, were calculated for them. Wherefore having this prevalent incitement, let us not be cold and indifferent in the practice of righteousness and holiness; let us manfully break through all obstacles and impediments, and let us be vigorous and zealous in the ways of religion, even of that which God by an insite principle dictates to us: and the rather, because this is so considerable a step to and a part of that higher strain and improvement, which we are chiefly to be concerned for, namely, the institution of the blessed Jesus, our conformity to which is absolutely necessary in order to our salvation and happiness. To conclude, let us be stedfast and unmovable in our duty, seeing the principles and reasons of it are such. And let it evidently appear in our lives, that the esteem and love we have for goodness and virtue are not passion, but reason not imagination, but solid judgment.