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CHAPTER III.

ON THE CAUSES OF THE MORAL SENTIMENTS.

SECTION I. On the Origin of the Moral Sentiments.

TH

HE question to be discussed in the present Section may be thus stated: whether our moral sentiments be original and instinctive; or be derived from other known principles of human nature, and gradually acquired.

It may be thought by some that this question was put beyond dispute when we allowed that, in the case of an individual arrived at years of discretion, the moral sentiments generally arise immediately, on their proper occasions; or, in other words, that the moral sense is for the most part quick and susceptible. But how little we are justified in concluding that the moral sense is an original faculty because, in our mature state, it acts with great rapidity, will be manifest from the following analogy. Nothing can appear more instantaneous than our perceptions by the eye, of the magnitude, figure, and distances of objects when not too remote; but yet it is now well known that these perceptions are not instinctive, but acquired, and that, in truth, we learn to see. This great discovery had been anticipated by Berkeley in his New Theory of Vision, from reasoning a priori, and was confirmed by direct experience on persons born blind and afterwards gifted with sight; in particular

by an operation on a lad performed by the celebrated Cheselden. It was then proved that a person with his visual organs in a perfectly sound state would have no notion, prior to experience, of the magnitude, figure, or distance of objects, but would see all things close to his eye; as seems to be the case with young children, who are long of stretching out their hands far enough to lay hold on anything. The sense of touch is thus shown to be necessary to teach us how to see; nor is it till after repeated associations between touch and sight, that the latter at once suggests to us the proper form and position of objects. Between this and our present case the analogy is perfect; for as the instantaneous vision of any one above infancy is no proof that the faculty is instinctive, so the quickness of the moral sense in the mature mind does not show that it is original.

Having dismissed the above argument in favour of the originality of our moral sentiments, which meets us at the threshold of our inquiry, we may remark, that the analysis given in the previous Chapter leads us to a proof of the contrary. Since we have seen that those sentiments are not simple, but made up of a judgment and a feeling, it seems natural to infer, that the compound is derived from the elements, and that reason and a susceptibility to emotion must have preceded the moral sense. But in order to see this more clearly, let us consider the particular nature of the emotion connected with moral sentiment.

We have remarked, that the emotion in question is a modification of the general passion of love or hatred; and consequently, in order to trace the origin

of our moral sentiments, we must trace the origin of those passions. The general cause of love or hatred is some pleasure or pain which we receive from a voluntary agent, whether by intention or otherwise; for though this makes a great difference in the degree of passion excited, it is not essential to its existence. As we often love persons who have never done us any favour or shewn us any marked attention, so we frequently dislike those who have neither meant to injure nor slight us. To rouse our good or ill-will towards them, it is enough that they have caused us pleasure or pain; and though the feeling may be afterwards modified by reflecting that the pleasure or pain was unintentional, the emotion being once roused, it is not so easily subdued. Now there are two ways in which men may please or displease us, directly, or indirectly, either by their actions which immediately affect ourselves, or by their conduct towards others with whom we have a sympathy. As, in general, we feel everything more keenly which immediately touches ourselves, so the corresponding passions are more lively; unless dear friends be concerned, whose happiness and misery are almost as our own. Indeed, so intense is our love or our hatred towards any one who has benefited or injured ourselves or friends, that the emotion often perverts our reason, and overpowers the moral sentiments. We always make allowance for the keenness of this feeling when we listen to the sentiments of others in their own case, and regard them little, because they are warped by passion. It is not, therefore, in the love or hatred arising from causes peculiar to ourselves

or friends that we can look for the origin of moral sentiment, or the sense of right and wrong. Besides, we are constantly approving or disapproving of actions and characters in which we have no private interest whatsoever, and can praise or blame the conduct of persons living in distant parts of the world, or who died long before we were born. What is there in the actions of Cato or of Cæsar that can possibly affect the interests of any man now existing? but who does not approve the one and condemn the other? Can any Englishman say that he feels to have been benefited by Washington? but does any deny that he was the most virtuous of men? Therefore our moral sentiments are independent of private benefit or injury; and to discover whence they spring, we must look for some principle of general application. Such is the principle of sympathy. Man is framed to "rejoice with those that do rejoice, and weep with those that weep," whether the objects of his sympathy be acquaintances or strangers, countrymen or foreigners, living or dead. And feeling, as he does by reflexion, the happiness and misery of others as if they were his own, he naturally loves or hates those who have been a cause of benefit or injury to their fellow-creatures.

But we approve or condemn not only those who benefit or injure others, but also those who benefit or injure themselves. Here the good or evil being confined to the individual in question, it is, if possible, still more clear than in the former case, that private interest has nothing to do with that love or hatred which gives rise to moral approbation or disapproba

tion. We are told of some person, perhaps long since dead, or now living in some distant part of the world, and no way connected with us, who has brought upon himself many and great calamities. On hearing of these calamities our first feeling may be pity; but when we reflect that they are his own doing, our emotion changes into indignation, which soon terminates in moral disapproval. Here is an example where sympathy produces two totally different effects. In the first instance, and while dwelling only on the misfortunes of a fellow-creature, without any reference to the cause, we are grieved on his account, and hence wish to relieve his sufferings; but afterwards, when we consider that he might have avoided them had he pleased, the pain which we still feel rouses indignation against the author of those ills which become our own by sympathy. It is evident that in this case it is reason, or reflection on causes and circumstances, that changes the first movement of pity, which is akin to love, into an emotion diametrically opposite, and leads us on to a sentiment of moral disapprobation; for if we heard any one expressing pity for the object, we should be apt to say, pity him not, for it is all his own fault; or, he has only himself to blame.'

1 Even when we attach no blame to the sufferer, or have no private enmity or envy, pity does not always arise on witnessing the calamities of others. Sometimes another emotion springs up instantaneously, and so engrosses the mind as completely to expel the tender feelings. Thus, the sight of a beggar covered with sores may excite so strong a disgust as not only to exclude pity, but even to rouse our anger against the wretched object, who by

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