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GAIN NOT GODLINESS.
PERVERSE disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, suppo
sing that gain is godliness. From such withdraw thyself. --1 TIMOTHY, vi, 5.
To reason justly from a false principle is the perfection of sophistry, which it is much more difficult to expose, than to refute false reasoning. It is easy to discover any error in false reasoning, and by just reasoning to refute it. But if men reason justly from any principle, whether true or false, their reasoning is conclusive, and the more it is examined, the more conclusive it will appear. We often find as strong and conclusive reasoning in favor of error, as in favor of truth. The only proper way, therefore, to expose the errors of profound sophisters, is to make it appear that they have built all their just and conclusive reasonings upon some false or absurd principle. Accordingly Paul took this method to expose men of corrupt minds in his day, who endeavored, by their sophistical and perverse disputings, to subvert the foundation of all religion and morality. They reasoned fairly and forcibly from a false principle, which they arbitrarily assumed. The apostle, therefore, does not pretend to examine their arguments, but only exposes and condemns the false and primary principle upon which they had founded their whole system of error. This appears from the words I have read and those immediately connected. “ Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful
and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort. If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: From such withdraw thyself.” These sophisters took it for granted that “gain is godliness," and from this false principle it was easy to prove, by fair and conclusive reasoning, that servants were not bound to obey their masters, nor children to obey their parents, nor subjects to obey their rulers, nor creatures to obey their Creator. This was the most artful way of spreading the poison of fatal errors. The apostle, therefore, seasonably warns Timothy to avoid those evil men and seducers, lest he should be led astray by their subtile and plausible sophistry. “ From such withdraw thyself.” Hence we may naturally conclude,
That men are greatly exposed to embrace the absurd doctrine that virtue consists in utility. I shall attempt,
I. To explain the meaning of the doctrine.
I. I am to explain the meaning of the doctrine that virtue consists in utility.
This sentiment has been maintained by those who believe, as well as by those who disbelieve divine revelation. Divines as well as infidels have supposed that virtue consists in utility, and both have clearly explained their meaning. Bishop Law, in his “ Theory of Religion,” after exploding what he considered a wrong notion of virtue, gives what he calls a more just and enlightened definition of it. “Now, since the subject of morality has been reduced to a science, and as such, built on rational principles, the sense of all the terms relating to it has been pretty well agreed upon, and it is generally understood to include thus much: The doing good to mankind in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness. Obedience to God is the principle, the good of mankind the matter, our own happiness the end, of all that is properly termed moral virtue. We cannot, therefore, distinguish between that which leads to the ultimatum of all private happiness, and real virtue; since nothing is materially good on any other account than as it properly conduces to such end; nothing bad or vicious, farther than it tends to the contrary; and the producing of the first among mankind entirely and uniformly, must be true virtue, call it moral or artificial, so long as we have any meaning to the word.” According to this labored definition of virtue, it wholly consists in utility, and all its excellence lies, not in its nature, but in its tendency to promote personal happiness. Dr. Paley, a friend and adrnirer of Bishop Law, has taken his definition of moral virtue, in his “ Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy," from that favorite author. And he farther observes, “ It is the utility of any moral rule, which alone constitutes the obligation of it." The most ingenious infidels give the same definition of virtue, and argue from it with great advantage to their cause. Hume, in his Essays, places all virtue in utility, and represents every quality of a man, whether intellectual or corporeal, which is agreeable and useful, as a constituent part of his moral character. But there is no infidel writer who has so openly and boldly advocated the doctrine that virtue solely consists in utility, as Godwin, in his “ Inquiry concerning Political Justice." In that work, he abundantly asserts that happiness is the supreme good, and that any thing whatever, whether animate or inanimate, which tends to promote it, is really virtuous. I will cite a few out of many of his expressions to this import. “Morality is that system of conduct which is determined by a consideration of the greatest general good; he is entitled to the highest moral approbation, whose conduct is, in the greatest number of instances, or in the most momentous instances, governed by views of benevolence, and made subservient to public utility.” “Morality consists entirely in an estimate of consequences; he is truly the virtuous man who produces the greatest portion of benefit his situation will admit." “ Morality is nothing else but a calculation of consequences, and an adoption of that mode of conduct which, upon the most comprehensive view, appears to be attended with a balance of general pleasure and happiness.” “ An action, however pure may be the intention of the actor, the tendency of which is mischievous, or which shall merely be nugatory and useless in its character, is not a virtuous action." “ In deciding the merits of others, we are bound for the most part to proceed in the same manner, as in deciding the merits of inanirate substances. The turning point is utility. Intention is of no farther value than as it leads to utility: it is the means, and not the end." “ The result of this part of the subject is, that those persons have been grossly mistaken, who taught that virtue was to be pursued for its own sake. Virtue is upon no other account valuable, than as it is the instrument of the most exquisite pleasure.” All who suppose that virtue consists in utility, agree in maintaining that virtue has no intrinsic excellence, as an end, but only a relative excellence, as a means to promote the only ultimate end in nature, that is, happiness. Since happiness is, in their view, the supreme good, and misery the supreme evil, they conclude that the whole duty of men consists in pursuing happiness, and avoiding misery. Upon this single principle, that virtue wholly consists in its tendency to promote natural good, in distinction from natural evil, Godwin has founded a scheme of sentiments which, carried into practice, would subvert all morality, religion and government.
II. I proceed to demonstrate the absurdity of supposing that “ gain is godliness," or that virtue essentially consists in utility. This sentiment is not only false, but absurd, because it contradicts the plainest dictates of reason and conscience.
1. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that virtue may be predicated of inanimate objects. These have a natural tendency, in various ways, to promote human happiness. The whole material system with which we are connected, was made for our habitation, convenience and benefit, and constantly answers these useful and important purposes.
But not to wander in so wide a field of material objects, let us fix our attention upon the sun, whose influence is the most extensive and beneficial. By its diurnal and annual revolutions, it diffuses light and heat over the face of the whole earth, and promotes the life and growth of every rational and irrational creature. And if utility constitutes moral virtue, where shall we find a more virtuous object than this beautiful and beneficent luminary? The sun has been dispensing innumerable benefits to mankind for many thousands of years, and if its moral virtue be in proportion to its utility, there is not a moral agent on earth whose moral worth is equal to the moral excellence of this material, inanimate, unconscious object. Those who admit that virtue consists in utility, cannot deny this consequence, however absurd it appears. Nor does Godwin pretend to deny it, but expressly allows that virtue may be predicated of inanimate, senseless matter. These are his own words : “ There are two considerations relative to any particular being, that generate approbation, and this whether the being be possessed of consciousness or not. These considerations are capacity, and the application of capacity. We approve of a sharp knife rather than a blunt one, because its capacity is greater. We approve of its being employed in carving food, rather than in maiming men or other animals, because that application of its capacity is preferable. But all approbation or preference is relative to utility, or general good. A knife is as capable as a man of being employed in purposes of utility, and the one is no more free than the other, as to its employment. The mode in which a knife is made subservient to these purposes is by material impulse. The mode in which a man is made subservient is by inducement and persuasion. But both are equally the affair of necessity. The man differs from the knife as the iron candlestick differs from the brass one; he has one more way of being acted upon. This additional way in man is motive, in the candlestick it is magnetism.” Such is the natural and avowed consequence of the doctrine, that virtue consists in utility. It necessarily implies that mere material objects may be really virtuous; and some material objects may have more virtue than the most benevolent of the human race. And this is an idea as repugnant to every dictate of common sense, as the doctrine of transubstantiation.
2. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that virtue may be predicated of the mere animal creation. The beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, administer largely to our comfort and support. And if virtue consists in utility, it may be predicated of these, and of every thing that has the least portion of life and sensation. But is it in the power of our minds to conceive that creatures which are totally destitute of moral discernment, and which cannot distinguish between right and wrong, are nevertheless capable of doing moral actions, which are worthy of praise or blame? Can the bare beneficial tendency of their actions render them virtuous ? Was there any moral virtue in the gaggling of the geese, which saved the city of Rome from destruction? It is no less absurd to ascribe virtue to the utility of animals, than to ascribe virtue to a refreshing shower, or a fruitful field.
3. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that men may be virtuous, without any intention to do good. They certainly may be very useful, without having utility in
Their actions may have a natural tendency to promote useful and important designs, which they had no thought or intention of promoting. When Jesse sent David to see and comfort his brethren in the army, he had no thought of raising him to the throne of Israel, and, in that way, of promoting the general welfare of the nation. Men are every day performing actions which have a tendency to promote that public good which lies beyond all their views and intentions. But let any man, or any body of men, do ever so much good while they have no intention of doing it, and the tendency of their conduct will not render it in the least degree virtuous. It is contrary to the dictates of every man's conscience, to place the virtue of an action in its utility, or bare tendency to promote happiness. He cannot, if he tries, separate the virtue of an action from the intention of the agent. But the doctrine under consideration, places all virtue in the tendency of an action,