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Individuals and Their Actions

Richard Hildreth's Theory of Morals, Part One

Hildreth introduces the wide variety of competing ethical theories available to nineteenth century thinkers and begins exploring his own “forensic” theory.

Editor’s Note

Richard Hildreth was born on 28 June, 1807 in western Massachusetts. He studied law at Harvard and joined the Massachusetts bar at age twenty-three, though his career was really forged through writing history and newspaper editing. It was a transformational time for the United States, especially if one lived in the rural-urban border zone like Hildreth. Turnpikes, canals, railroads, and telegraph lines criss-crossed the country during his lifetime (died 11 July, 1865). As they went, these new and even fantastical infrastructures connected the American people to each other and the wider world more deeply than ever before. The effects of expanding transportation, trade, and communications networks on society and politics were profound and unpredictable. Whatever calm, comfort, and quietude may have existed between 1815 and 1825 was steadily disrupted. American life shifted into new forms every week some years and although people desperately sought stability and normalcy, change appeared the new universal constant.

Hildreth was neither a Jacksonian democrat nor was he a mere Clay-ite Whig. Early in life, he inclined toward the old Federalists and through his years he maintained the view that balancing the vast competing interests in American life required a powerful central governing body. In the late 1820s, the position allied him with John Quincy Adams’ National Republicans and the Whigs by the mid-1830s. Broadly speaking, modern libertarians find it far more natural to identify with the free trading, anti-central banking, states’ rights Democrats of the era (as opposed to the protectionist, crony-capitalist, centralizing Whigs), but it must be admitted that our historical understanding of Jacksonian political and intellectual history has been highly flawed. In fact, there was no clear distinction between pro-libertarian and anti-libertarian forces during Hildreth’s lifetime—for one thing, libertarianism as we understand it today did not then exist; for another, where it did exist in some nascent form, it rarely manifested as a full ideological matrix. Instead of seeking to rather cartoonishly read modern libertarianism back into now-ancient American political coalitions, we would reap much greater profit from understanding how particular libertarian ideas manage to manifest within decidedly unlibertarian ideological frameworks. Or, perhaps here we have an example of a thoroughly libertarian ideological framework portions of which have been invaded by statism (Federalism). 

Richard Hildreth—Federalist, National Republican, and Whig as he was—believed that individuals were the species’ fundamental social units, the only moral agents which exist, and as such, his theories of ethics, politics, and history constitute important contributions to the libertarian tradition whatever his beliefs about the actual mechanics of governments and economies. In the current series, we will explore his Theory of Morals, in which our author argues that proper ethics must be forensic and based on empirical experience as well as intuitive reasoning. In the first selection, Hildreth addresses rival ethical theories from the ancient world, arguing that if human beings wish to live in a better world, they must recognize that every individual is a moral agent and responsible agency requires rigorous virtue.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Theory of Morals: An Inquiry Concerning the Law of Moral Distinctions and the Variations and Contradictions of Ethical Codes

By Richard Hildreth. Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown. 1844.

Part First. Of Moral Distinctions in General.

Chapter 1. Moral Classifications of Actions.

1. The distinction between actions morally good and morally bad, morally Right and morally Wrong, and therefore worthy of approval or worthy of blame, perpetually exercises a powerful influence over the judgments and the conduct of men.

2. To discover the nature, in other words, the origin or cause of this distinction, or, more correctly, the Law according to which it takes place, has been, and still is, an object of anxious inquiry among philosophers; for no theory satisfactory in all respects has yet been proposed.

3. It is held by one class of moralists, that there is an original, eternal, absolute difference, independent of the peculiar constitution of man, between Right and Wrong; and men have been supposed to be endowed with an innate faculty of perceiving that difference, just as through the eye, the touch, and the palate, they discern the difference between black and white, straight and crooked, hard and soft, sweet and sour. This power of moral discernment has by some been ascribed to reason, the faculty, that is, by which truth in general is discerned; by others it has been ascribed to a supposed faculty appropriated to the discernment of moral truth in particular, called Conscience, or the Moral Sense. It has been further supposed, that Right is endowed with a certain peculiar beauty or desirableness, which attracts us to pursue it, and that Wrong carries with it a certain deformity or disgustfulness, which repels and restrains us. This theory of morals, which we may distinguish as the Platonic theory, taught by Plato, revived in modern times by Cudworth and Clarke, and more recently maintained by Price, Kant, Cousin, and Jouffroy, is liable, however, to insuperable objections.

4. In the first place, it seems to be well established, and notwithstanding strenuous efforts lately made in favor of the opposite opinion, philosophers are more and more inclined to admit, that the knowledge of the absolute is not within the reach of human capacity. What men have the power to know is, not what things are in themselves absolutely, but only what they are relatively to man; that is, how they appear to, and how they affect the human observer. All we can know is, what men perceive, and what men feel. The constitution of our own nature, not the absolute constitution of things, is the proper object of human research; and only in the constitution of man can we find, if we find at all, the origin of human opinions and actions.

5. To escape this objection, and at the same time to account for the pleasurable and disgustful feelings attendant upon the perception of Right and Wrong, Shaftesbury and others maintain, that the distinction between right and wrong is, in fact, a subjective distinction, originating in a peculiar sensibility, to which they give the name or Moral Sentiment, by means of which we feel certain actions to be right and others to be wrong.

But whether in its original shape, or thus modified, the Platonic theory is liable to the decisive objection, that it admits of no practical application; that it explains nothing, being a mere truism, a mere form of asserting, what is the very thing to be explained, that men do distinguish between Right and Wrong. So long and so far as there is a perfect coincidence between what is called the reason, conscience, moral sense, or moral sentiment of all men, like that which exists in the perception of forms, colors, and sounds, this theory answers sufficiently well. But it is precisely because there are great differences among men upon questions of morals, that the nature or law of moral distinctions becomes an object of such anxious inquiry. What we want is, some test by which to distinguish, in cases of dispute, what is Right, and what is Wrong. But so long as each man appeals to his own particular reason, his own particular conscience, his own particular moral sentiment, as the ultimate and infallible tribunal, just as he appeals to his eye in matters of color, to his sight and touch upon questions of form, and to his ear upon questions of sound, no such test does, or can, exist. All consciences do not agree, like all ears and all eyes. We are bewildered amid a multitude of contradictory decisions, all claiming an equal authority; till at length we are driven to doubt, whether what is called conscience, or the moral sentiment, is, after all, any thing more than education, habit, prejudice, inclination, or caprice.

6. Another theory of morals, which, under different forms, has had, and still has, a very extensive currency, places the differences between Right and Wrong, in the tendency of right actions to promote, and of wrong actions to diminish, the happiness of the actor. This is called the Selfish theory.

This theory is not without a certain degree of plausibility; since every man’s consciousness will inform him, that the performance of actions which the agent esteems right, is always attended by a degree of satisfaction; while the performance of actions which the agent esteems wrong, is always attended by a degree of pain.

7. But when we look closer into the matter, and examine that which is called happiness, we find it not a simple, but a very complex thing, made up of many various, and often hostile, ingredients. There are numerous kinds of pleasures besides the pleasure of acting rightly; and numerous kinds of pains besides the pain of doing wrong. What is called happiness consists in the enjoyment of pleasures of all kinds; and those who have held that happiness and virtue are correlative, have been inevitably driven into one, or the other, of two opposite paradoxes. They have found themselves obliged to maintain, either that the pleasure of virtue is the only pleasure, or that all pleasures are equally virtuous…

13. Indeed, when we come to look more closely into the matter, so far from finding that the peculiar characteristics of actions morally right, is their tendency to promote the pleasure or happiness of the actor, either immediate or permanent; and of actions morally wrong to produce either present or future pain to the actor; it is a much more distinguishing quality that those actions which we call morally good are such as to promote the pleasure, either immediate or prospective, of some sensitive being other than the actor; while those actions which we call morally bad are such as tend to produce pain, immediate or prospective, to some sensitive being other than the actor.

14. Before proceeding to follow up this observation, certain preliminary distinctions must be pointed out; otherwise we shall become involved, like so many other speculators upon morals, in an endless labyrinth of verbal ambiguities.

15. In the first place, it is to be observed, that ACTIONS are the only original subject-matter of moral judgment. By the word action, we must here understand, not any event happening by any agency, in which broad meaning the word is sometimes used, but an event happening by the agency of some being having a power of voluntary or spontaneous action. We must even limit the word still further, so as to include only the actions of beings capable of perceiving beforehand, at least to a certain extent, the consequences of their actions; in other words, to the actions of men, of beings having, or supposed to have, an intellectual constitution similar to that of man.

Human actions then are the original subject-matter of moral judgment; and other things fall under its cognizance merely as they tend, or are supposed to tend, to produce human actions of a particular kind; or if the actions of any beings, other than men, ever become the subject-matter upon which moral judgment is exercised, it is only because those beings are supposed to possess a nature, so far as the distinction between good and bad actions is concerned, similar to that of man.

16. Now an action such as we have here described it, to wit, the action of a spontaneous intelligent being, is made up of two things quite distinct from each other; namely, the external event resulting, and the motive by which the agent was impelled to produce that event.

17. In speaking of actions we use the words right and wrong principally with an eye to the external event, and with little or no reference to the motive of the actor. We use the words virtuous and vicious principally with reference to the motive of the actor, and with little or no regard to the external event. This distinction is clearly traceable in the most ordinary use of language; it is of great importance; and in this treatise it will be strictly adhered to. The phrases, morally good and morally bad, are used indiscriminately, with respect both to the motive and the event; sometimes with principal reference to the one; sometimes with principal reference to the other; sometimes with equal reference to both. The epithets good and bad, and the corresponding substantives good and evil, when used alone, without the qualifying term, morally, have their signification greatly enlarged. The word good is employed to describe any thing that gives us pleasure; the words bad and evil, any thing that gives us pain, whether a moral pleasure or a moral pain, or a pain or pleasure of any other kind. As the qualifying epithet morally is frequently dropped, even when the signification of these words is restricted to moral good and moral evil, an ambiguity thence arises, which has led to infinite confusion and mistakes,—an ambiguity which we must carefully avoid.

18. The word action, it must also be recollected, includes not only positive acts, that is, things actually done; but also negative acts, that is, things omitted to be done.

19. After these explanations, we may assert, that ALL POSITIVE ACTIONS CALLED WRONG, are actions that produce, or are supposed to produce, or to tend to produce, immediately or ultimately, some pain to some sensitive being other than the actor; and that ALL NEGATIVE ACTIONS CALLED WRONG, are actions that deprive, or tend to deprive, or are thought to do so, some sensitive being other than the actor, of some pleasure that he would otherwise have enjoyed; or which leave him exposed to some pain, from which, had the action been performed, he would have escaped.

20. Let it here be remarked, once for all, that the word pleasure, in its ordinary use, and for the sake of brevity, we shall often employ it in the same extensive sense, includes not only pleasure properly so called, or positive pleasure, but also relief or freedom from pain, or negative pleasure; and that the word pain includes not only pain properly so called, or positive gain, but also deprivation or diminution or pleasure, or negative pain.

21. All actions that are not wrong, are RIGHT; but under the common head of right actions, two classes are embraced very distinct in kind. The first class includes those actions which are right, but at the same time, MORALLY INDIFFERENT; to which class belong all those actions, which, however pleasurable or painful to the actor himself, produce, or are supposed to produce, or to tend to produce neither pleasure nor pain to any sensitive being other than the actor. The performance or non-performance of these acts has no influence, any way, upon our estimate of moral character. On the other hand, those actions which produce, or are supposed to produce, or to tend to produce pleasure to sensitive beings other than the actor, are not only right, but also PRAISEWORTHY; and it is by the performance of such actions that a character for virtue is acquired.

22. Thus it happens that the same external act will be classes, as morally Indifferent, as Praiseworthy, or as Wrong, according as it is productive, or thought likely to be productive, of different results. Whether I shall sit or stand, whether I shall pick up a stone or throw it down, these acts, so long as this is all that appears, are morally indifferent; and whether I perform or omit them can have not the slightest influence in determining my moral character…

23…In other words, no action is ever prohibited as wrong, in any code of morals, except because it is thought to cause some pain to some sensitive being other than the actor; and no action is ever enjoined as a duty, except because it is thought to produce some pleasure to some sensitive being other than the actor. And further, actions considered in themselves, and without immediate reference to the motives of the actor, are classed as more or less praiseworthy in proportion to the amount and extent of pleasure which they are supposed to confer, or to tend to confer, upon sensitive beings other than the actor; and they are pronounced more or less wrong, in proportion as the pain to sensitive beings other than the actor, which they inflict, or are supposed to inflict, or to tend to inflict, is greater or less in acuteness, permanence, and extent.

These allegations are of such great importance, and, if founded in fact, afford such a clue towards the discovery of the real nature and actual law of moral distinctions, that it is necessary to establish their truth somewhat in detail.

24. In all societies of men, the most rude and savage, as well as the most civilized, there exist sets of opinions on the subject of right and wrong actions,—that is, as to what actions ought to be performed, and what actions ought not to be performed,—which sets of opinions, out of analogy to the codes of civil law, have been called the moral code, or the moral law. Indeed it is the moral code, which everywhere furnishes, to a greater or less extent, the foundations of the civil code.

These bodies of opinion, these moral codes, pass from generation to generation, sometimes by oral, and sometimes by written tradition; sometimes they are handed down for ages almost unchanged; sometimes they are gradually and imperceptibly modified; and sometimes they undergo very sudden and very violent alterations.

When we come to compare these moral codes with each other, we find, as in the various codes of civil laws, upon some points a perfect coincidence, and upon others a general similarity; while upon other points, and those often of the highest importance, we observe the most strange, and apparently unaccountable discrepancies; and sometimes the most positive contradictions.

It is the existence of these discrepancies and contradictions, it is the disputes which are constantly arising in every inquisitive and progressive society, upon certain points of the Moral Law, which give its chief interest and importance to our present inquiry. What are the principles upon which the distinction between Right and Wrong depends? Amid so many disputes and contradictions, by what rule shall we be guided?…

25. With respect to that class of actions included under the head of Duties to others, and which are generally arranged under the two great divisions of Justice and Benevolence, it is obvious, at the first glance, that pleasure to others is of the very essence of all those actions…

Every benevolent act implies a pleasure or benefit conferred. Justice requires us to abstain from inflicting pain, or, if we have inflicted it, to make up for it; benevolence requires us to confer gratuitous, positive pleasures.

26. We proceed next to consider that class of acts called Duties to ourselves. They are usually arranged under the three heads of Prudence, Temperance, and Economy. These duties, in most codes of morals, hold a very high rank; so much so, that in the English language, what is meant, in common parlance, by a moral man, is, a man observant of these duties…

27. Prudence, Temperance, and Economy are essential to place a man in such a position, as will enable him to confer pleasures upon others; while Imprudence, Intemperance, and want of Economy lead, of necessity, to the infliction of the severest injuries upon others. No man stands alone. Every man is surrounded, to a greater or lesser extent, by those whose welfare is more or less dependent upon him; and in this way it becomes a duty to others, to take care of ourselves; to keep ourselves in a position which will preserve us from inflicting pains, and will enable us to confer benefits…

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