Chapter 6

When the Sense of Duty Should be our Conduct's Sole Principle; When it Should Concur with Other Motives

September 21, 2015

113 Religion affords strong motives to the practice of virtue. It guards us from the temptations of vice through powerful restraints. Many have supposed that religious principles were the sole laudable motives of action. They said that we should not=

  • reward from gratitude,
  • punish from resentment,
  • protect our children’s helplessness, and
  • afford support to the infirmities of our parents, from natural affection.

Instead, all feelings for objects should be extinguished in our breast. The love of the Deity is the desire of=

  • rendering ourselves agreeable to him, and
  • directing our conduct according to his will.

It should be the one great affection above all others. We should not be=

  • grateful from gratitude,
  • charitable from humanity,
  • public-spirited from the love of our country, and
  • generous and just from the love of mankind.

Our conduct’s sole motive should be a sense that God has commanded us to do them. Christianity does not have a monopoly to such an opinion.

  • Christianity’s first precept is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
  • Its second precept is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.

We love ourselves surely for our own sakes, not because we are commanded to do so.

Christianity has no rule saying that our sense of duty should be our sole principle. Instead, Christianity says that the sense of duty should be the governing principle as directed by philosophy and common sense.

When should our actions be guided by a sense of duty to the general rules and when should it be based on our feelings?

114-115 This cannot be accurately answered as it will depend on two circumstances=

  1. On the natural beauty or ugliness of the feeling which causes our action, independent of the general rules
  2. On the precision or looseness of the general rules themselves.

According to the morality of the action’s underlying feeling

116 Our benevolent feelings prompt us to admirable actions. Those actions should proceed as much from those benevolent feelings, as from general rules. A benefactor thinks himself undercompensated, if his beneficiary repays him merely=

  • from a cold sense of duty, and
  • without any affection.

A husband is dissatisfied with the most obedient wife, when he imagines that she is merely following the rules of their relationship. A son might observe filial duty but lack affection. His parent may jusly complain of his indifference. Likewise, a son would not be satisfied with a parent who had no fatherly fondness even if his father performed all his duties.

With benevolent and social feelings, it is agreeable to see the sense of duty restraining them. It gives us pleasure to see=

  • a father obliged to check his own fondness,
  • a friend obliged to limit his natural generosity, and
  • a person who has received a benefit, to see him restrain his own sanguine gratitude

117 The contrary maxim is applied to the unsocial feelings.

  • We should reward from the gratitude and generosity of our own hearts, without reluctance or without thinking how great the propriety of rewarding is.
  • We should always punish reluctantly, and more from a sense of the propriety of punishing, than from any desire for revenge.

It is graceful to see a man resenting the greatest injuries from a sense that the injuries deserve resentment, than from his own resentment. Like a judge, he considers only the general rule which determines the proper vengeance. In executing that rule, he feels less for what he has suffered, than for what the offender is about to suffer. He remembers mercy even if he is angry and interprets the rule in the gentlest way.

118 The selfish feelings are in the middle between the social and unsocial affections too. The ordinary pursuit of private interest should come from a regard to the general rules.

People would think low of a trader who was anxious about a shilling. His situation might require the most severe economy and exact assiduity. But each exertion of that economy must come from the general rule. This rule rigourously prescribes frugality to him, not so much from the idea of savings or gain.

  • This frugality must not arise from a desire of a three-pence savings.
  • His attentiveness to his shop must not arise from a feeling for the 10-pence that he will acquire by it.

Both should come solely from a regard to the general rule.

This is the difference between a miser and an accountant.

  • The miser is anxious about small matters for their own sake.
  • The accountant attends to small matters only because it is part of his life’s scheme.

119 It is otherwise with regard to the more important objects of self-interest. A person appears mean-spirited if he does not pursue these earnestly for their own sake. We should despise a prince who was not anxious about conquering or defending a province. We should have little respect for a private gentleman who did not exert himself to gain an estate or a considerable office, when he could acquire them without meanness or injustice.

A parliament member who shows no keenness about his own election is abandoned by his friends. Even a tradesman appears poor-spirited if he does not exert himself to get an extraordinary job or some uncommon advantage.

This spirit and keenness is the difference between the man of enterprise and the man of dull regularity. The objects of ambition are those great objects of self-interest which, when gained or lost, changes the person’s rank. When it is kept within the bounds of prudence and justice, it is always admired. It sometimes even has a certain irregular greatness which dazzles the imagination.

When it passes the limits of prudence and justice, it is unjust and extravagant. Hence the general admiration for=

  • heroes and conquerors, and
  • statesmen with very daring and extensive projects, though devoid of justice

Examples are those of the Cardinals of Richlieu and Retz. The objects of avarice and ambition differ only in their greatness. A miser is as furious about a halfpenny as a man of ambition about the conquest of a kingdom.


  1. How far our conduct should proceed from the general rules will depend partly on the accuracy of the general rules themselves.

121 The general rules of almost all the virtues are loose and inaccurate. They have many exceptions and require so many modifications. It is impossible for them to regulate our conduct entirely.

The common proverbial maxims of prudence are founded in universal experience. They are perhaps the best general rules which can be given about it. However, it would be absurd to force a very strict adherence to them. The general rules determine what are the offices of prudence, charity, generosity, gratitude, and friendship.

Of these virtues, the rules are perhaps most precise and has the fewest exceptions with gratitude. It says that we should return equal or superior value to the services we receive as soon as we can.

This rule seems to be pretty plain, without any exceptions. However, on the most superficial examination, this rule will appear to be most inaccurate. It admits 10,000 exceptions.

  • If your benefactor attended you in your sickness, should you attend him in his?
    • Can you fulfill the obligation of gratitude by making a return of a different kind?
    • If you should attend him, how long should you attend him?
  • If your friend lent you money in your distress, should you to lend him money in his?
    • How much should you to lend him and for how long?
    • When should you to lend him?

There is no general rule for these. There might be a difference between=

  • another person’s character and yours, and
  • another person’s circumstances and yours.

You might be perfectly grateful and justly refuse to lend him a halfpenny. On the contrary, you might be willing to lend or even to give him 10 times the sum he lent you, yet you might be justly accused=

  • of the blackest ingratitude, and
  • of not having fulfilled 1/100th part of your obligation.

However, the duties of gratitude are perhaps the most sacred of all those prescribed to us by the beneficent virtues. The general rules which determine those duties are the most accurate. Those rules which ascertain the actions required by friendship, humanity, hospitality, generosity, are still more vague.

The general rules are precise with the virtue of Justice

122 The general rules of the virtue called justice require the greatest exactness. Their modifications must be as accurate as the rules themselves. If I owe a man £10, justice requires that I precisely pay him £10=

  • at the agreed time, or
  • when he demands it.

It might be awkward and pedantic to adhere too strictly to the common rules of prudence or generosity. But there is no pedantry in sticking fast by the rules of justice. On the contrary, the most sacred regard is due to them. The actions required by justice are most properly performed when their chief motive is a reverential regard to those general rules.

In the practice of the other virtues, our conduct should rather be directed by=

  • a certain idea of propriety, and
  • a certain taste for a particular tenor of conduct, than by any regard to a precise maxim or rule.

We should consider the end and foundation of the rule, more than the rule itself. But it is otherwise with regard to justice. The most commendable and dependable man is he who=

  • refines the rules, and
  • adheres most steadfastly to the general rules themselves.

The goal of the rules of justice is to hinder us from hurting our neighbour. It is a crime to violate them even if we imagine that the violation does no harm. A man often becomes a villain the moment he begins to think to trick others. At that moment, he is no longer to be trusted.

The thief imagines he does no evil when he steals from the rich the things that he thinks=

  • they may lose without much concern, or
  • they may possibly never know was even stolen from them.

The adulterer imagines he does no evil when he corrupts his friend’s wife, provided he=

  • covers his intrigue from his friend’s suspicion, and
  • does not disturb the family’s peace.

Once we begin to give way to such thoughts, we become capable of such an enormity that we did not know we could do.

123 The rules of justice may be compared to the precise rules of grammar. The rules of the other virtues can be compared to the vague rules which critics lay down. They give us a general idea of the perfection we should aim at, instead of certain directions for acquiring it.

A man may learn to write perfectly grammatically by rule, just as he might be taught to act justly. But there are no rules which will infallibly lead us to the elegance or sublimity in writing. Though there are some rules which might help us to correct the vague ideas of those perfections.

There are no rules which we can infallibly teach us to always act with prudence, magnanimity, or beneficence. Though there are some which may enable us to correct our imperfect ideas of those virtues.

124 Sometimes, we may mistake the proper rules of conduct when we most seriously want to act to deserve approbation. We are thus misled by that very principle which should direct us. In this case, it is in vain to expect that mankind should entirely approve of our behaviour. They cannot=

  • enter into that absurd idea of duty which influenced us, and
  • go along with any of the actions which follow from it.

However, there is still something respectable in the character and behaviour of one who is betrayed into vice by=

  • a wrong sense of duty or
  • an erroneous conscience.

No matter how fatally he was misled by it, he is still more the object of sympathy than of hatred or resentment, with the generous and humane.

They lament the weakness of human nature which exposes us to such unhappy delusions, even while we are most sincerely=

  • labouring after perfection
  • trying to act according to the best principle which can possibly direct us

Only the false notions from religion can cause very gross perversions of our natural feelings in this way. In all other cases, common sense is sufficient to direct us. Everyone agrees that the first rule of duty is to obey the Deity’s will. But they differ widely on the commandments that Deity imposes on us. Therefore, the greatest mutual toleration is required.

Society’s defence requires crimes to be punished from whatever motives. Yet a good man will always punish them reluctantly when their motives are from the false notions of religious duty. He will never feel that indignation which he feels against other criminals. He will rather regret and sometimes even admire their unfortunate firmness and magnanimity while he punishes them. The tragedy of Mahomet was one of Voltaire’s finest.

It properly represented what should be our feelings for crimes from such motives. In that tragedy, a young man Seid and woman Palmira had a mutual fondness for one another. They were most innocent and virtuous. They are instigated to commit a horrid murder by the strongest motives of a false religion. It shocks all the principles of human nature. A venerable old man expressed the most tender affection for both of them. He was the avowed enemy of their religion. They both conceived the highest reverence and esteem for him. In reality, he was their father who they did not know about. He is pointed out to them as a sacrifice which God expressly required at their hands. They are commanded to kill him. While executing this crime, they are tortured with all the agonies arising from the struggle between= the idea of religious duty on the one side, and compassion, gratitude, reverence for the aged, and love for the humanity and virtue of the person they are going to destroy, on the other It shows one of the most interesting and instructive theatre spectacle. However, the sense of duty prevails finally over all the amiable weaknesses of human nature. They execute the crime imposed on them. But immediately they discover= their error and the fraud which deceived them They are distracted with horror, remorse, and resentment. Our feelings for Seid and Palmira should be our feelings for anyone misled by religion in this way, when we are sure that it is really religion which misleads him and not the pretence of it. Its pretence is made as a cover to some of the worst human passions.

125 A person may act wrongly by following a wrong sense of duty. Nature may sometimes prevail and lead him to oppose it. In this case, we cannot be displeased to see the sense of duty prevail, which we think should prevail, though the person himself is so weak as to think otherwise.

However, his conduct is the effect of weakness and not of principle.

During the massacre of St Bartholomew, Catholics were told that it was their duty to kill Protestants. We would not applaud a bigoted Roman Catholic who saves Protestants and not of compassion.

We might be pleased with his humanity. But we should still regard him with a sort of pity. This pity would then be totally inconsistent with our admiration for perfect virtue.

We do not dislike to see them exert themselves properly, even when a false notion of duty directs them otherwise. A very devout Quaker is struck on one cheek. Instead of turning up the other cheek, he forgets his literal interpretation of our Saviour’s precept. He bestows some good discipline on the brute that insulted him. This would be agreeable to us. We should=

  • laugh and be diverted with his spirit, and
  • like him more for it.

But we should not give him the respect due to one who acted properly from a just sense of what was proper, on a like occasion. No action can be called virtuous if it is not accompanied with the feeling of self-approbation.