THERE is an important enquiry which cannot fail to suggest itself in this place. "Universal sincerity has been shown to be pregnant with unspeakable advantages. The enlightened friend of the human species cannot fail anxiously to anticipate the time when each man shall speak truth with his neighbour. But what conduct does it behove us to observe in the interval? Are we to practise an unreserved and uniform sincerity, while the world about us acts upon so different a plan? If sincerity should ever become characteristic of the community in which we live, our neighbour will then be prepared to hear the truth, and to make use of the comunication in a way that shall be manly, generous and just. But, at present, we shall be liable to waken the resentment of some, and to subject to a trial beyond its strength the fortitude of others. By a direct and ill-timed truth we may not only incur the forfeiture of our worldly prospects, but of our usefulness, and sometimes of our lives."
Ascetic and puritanical systems of morality have accustomed their votaries to give a short answer to these difficulties, by directing us "to do our duty, without regard to consequences, and uninfluenced by a consideration of what may be the conduct of others." But these maxims will not pass unexamined with the man who considers morality as a subject of reasoning, and places its foundation in a principle of utility. "To do our duty without regard to consequences," is, upon this principle, a maxim completely absurd and self-contradictory. 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. Nor will the other part of the precept above stated appear, upon examination, to be less erroneous. There are many instances in which the selection of the conduct I should pursue altogether depends upon a foresight of "what will be the conduct of others." To what purpose contribute my subscription to an object of public utility, a bridge, for example, or a canal, at a time when I certainly foreknow that the subscription will not be generally countenanced? Shall I go and complete such a portion of masonry upon the spot as, if all my neighbours would do the same, would effect the desired purpose, though I am convinced that no one beside myself will move a finger in the undertaking? There are various regulations respecting our habits of living, expenditure and attire which, if generally adopted, would probably be of the highest benefit, which yet, if acted upon by a single individual, might be productive of nothing but injury. I cannot pretend to launch a ship or repel an army by myself, though either of these might be things, absolutely considered, highly proper to be done.
The duty of sincerity is one of those general principles which reflection and experience have enjoined upon us as conducive to the happiness of mankind. Let us enquire then into the nature and origin of general principles. Engaged, as men are, in perpetual intercourse with their neighbours, and constantly liable to be called upon without the smallest previous notice, in cases where the interest of their fellows is deeply involved, it is not possible for them, upon all occasions, to deduce, through a chain of reasoning, the judgement which should be followed. Hence the necessity of resting-places for the mind, of deductions, already stored in the memory, and prepared for application as circumstances may demand. We find this necessity equally urgent upon us in matters of science and abstraction as in conduct and morals. Theory has also a further use. It serves as a perpetual exercise and aliment to the understanding, and renders us competent and vigorous to judge in every situation that can occur. Nothing can be more idle and shallow than the competition which some men have set up between theory and practice. It is true that we can never predict, from theory alone, the success of any given experiment. It is true that no theory, accurately speaking, can possibly be practical. It is the business of theory to collect the circumstances of a certain set of cases, and arrange them. It would cease to be theory if it did not leave out many circumstances; it collects such as are general, and leaves out such as are particular. In practice however, those circumstances inevitably arise which are necessarily omitted in the general process: they cause the phenomenon, in various ways, to include features which were not in the prediction, and to be diversified in those that were. Yet theory is of the highest use; and those who decry it may even be proved not to understand themselves. They do not mean that men should always act in a particular case, without illustration from any other case, for that would be to deprive us of all understanding. The moment we begin to compare cases, and infer, we begin to theorize; no two things in the universe were ever perfectly alike. The genuine exercise of man therefore is to theorize, for this is, in other words, to sharpen and improve his intellect; but not to become the slave of theory, or at any time to forget that it is, by its very nature, precluded from comprehending the whole of what claims our attention.
To apply this to the case of morals. General principles of morality are so far valuable as they truly delineate the means of utility, pleasure, or happiness. But every action of any human being has its appropriate result; and, the more closely it is examined, the more truly will that result appear. General rules and theories are not infallible. It would be preposterous to suppose that, in order to judge fairly, and conduct myself properly, I ought only to look at a thing from a certain distance, and not consider it minutely. On the contrary, I ought, as far as lies in my power, to examine everything upon its own grounds, and decide concerning it upon its own merits. To rest in general rules is sometimes a necessity which our imperfection imposes upon us, and sometimes the refuge of our indolence; but the true dignity of human reason is, as much as we are able, to go beyond them, to have our faculties in act upon every occasion that occurs, and to conduct ourselves accordingly.
There is an observation necessary to be made, to prevent any erroneous application of these reasonings. In the morality of every action two things are to be considered, the direct, and the remote consequences with which it is attended. There are numerous modes of proceeding which might be productive of immediate pleasure that would have so ill an effect upon the permanent state of one or many individuals as to render them, in every rational estimate, objects, not of choice, but of aversion. This is particularly the case in relation to that view of any action whereby it becomes a medium enabling the spectator to predict the nature of future actions. It is with the conduct of our fellow beings, as with the course of inanimate nature: if events did not succeed each other in a certain order, there could be neither judgement, nor wisdom, nor morality. Confidence, in the order of the seasons, and the progress of vegetation, encourages us to sow our field, in expectation of a future harvest. Confidence, in the characters of our fellow men, that they will for the most part be governed by the reason of the case, that they will neither rob, nor defraud, nor deceive us, is not less essential to the existence of civilized society. Hence arises a species of argument in favour of general rules, not hitherto mentioned. The remote consequences of an action, especially as they relate to the fulfilling, or not fulfilling, the expectation excited, depend chiefly on general circumstances, and not upon particulars; belong to the class, and not to the individual. But this makes no essential alteration in what was before delivered. It will still be incumbent on us, when called into action, to estimate the nature of the particular case, that we may ascertain where the urgency of special circumstances is such as to supersede rules that are generally obligatory.
To return to the particular case of sincerity. Sincerity and plain dealing are obviously, in the majority of human actions, the best policy, if we consider only the interest of the individual, and extend our calculation of that interest only over a very short period. No man will be wild enough to assert, even in this limited sense, that it is seldomer our policy to speak truth than to lie. Sincerity and plain dealing are eminently conducive to the interest of mankind at large, because they afford ground for that confidence and reasonable expectation which are essential both to wisdom and virtue. Yet it may with propriety be asked, "Whether cases do not exist of peculiar emergency, where the general principle of sincerity and speaking the truth, ought to be superseded?"
Undoubtedly this is a question, to the treatment of which we should advance, with some degree of caution and delicacy. Yet it would be a strange instance of inconsistency that should induce us, right or wrong, to recommend a universal frankness, from an apprehension of the abuses which may follow from an opposite doctrine; and thus incur a charge of deception, in the very act of persuading our neighbours that deception is in no instance to be admitted.
Some persons, from an extreme tenderness of countenancing any particle of insincerity, at the same time that they felt the difficulty of recommending the opposite practice in every imaginable case, have thought proper to allege, "that it is not the propagation of truth, but of falsehood we have to fear; and that the whole against which we are bound to be upon our guard is the telling truth in such a manner as to produce the eflects of false hood."
This will perhaps be found upon examination to be an injudicious and mischievous distinction. In the first place, it is of great benefit to the cause of morality that things should be called by their right names, without varnish or subterfuge. I am either to tell the simple and obvious truth, or I am not; I am to suppress, or I am not to suppress: this is the alternative upon which the present question calls us to decide. If suppression, concealment or falsehood can in any case be my duty, let it be known to be such; I shall at least have this advantage, I shall be aware that it can only be my duty in some extraordinary emergence. Secondly, whatever reason can be assigned for my not communicating the truth in the form in which it originally suggests itself to my mind must, if it be a good reason, ultimately resolve itself into a reason of utility. Sincerity itself is a duty only for reasons of utility; it seems absurd therefore, if, in any case, truth is not to be communicated in its most obvious form, to seek for the reason rather in the secondary principle of sincerity than in the paramount and original principle of general utility. Lastly, this distinction is of a nature that seems to deserve that we should regard it with a watchful and jealous eye, on account of its vague and indefinite application. If the question were respecting the mode of my communicating truth, there could not perhaps be a better maxim than that I should take care so to communicate it, that it might have the effects of truth, and not of falsehood. But it will be extremely dangerous if I accustom myself to make this the test whether I shall communicate it or no. It is a maxim that seems exactly fitted to fall in with that indolence and want of enterprise which, in some degree or other, are characteristic of all human minds. Add to which, it is a maxim which may be applied without the possibility of limitation. There is no instance in which truth can be communicated absolute!y pure. We can only make approximations to such a proceeding, without ever being able fully to arrive at it. It will be liable to some misconstruction, to some want of clearness and precision, to the exciting some passions that ought to lie for ever dormant. This maxim therefore will either prove too much, or is one to which no recourse must be had, but after such an investigation of the capacities of the human mind in each individual instance as to make the idea of introducing a general maxim by way of compendium ridiculous.
Having cleared the subject of those ambiguities in which it has sometimes been involved, let us proceed to the investigation of the original question; and for this purpose it may be useful to take up the subject a little higher, and recur to the basis of moral obligation.
All just reasoning in subjects of morality has been found to depend upon this as its fundamental principle, that each man is bound to consider himself as a debtor in all his faculties, his opportunities, and his industry, to the general welfare. This is a debt which must be always paying, never discharged. Every moment of my life can be better employed, or it cannot; if it cannot, I am in that very instance, however seemingly inconsiderable, playing the part of a true patriot of human kind; if it can, I then inevitably incur some portion of delinquency. Considering the subject in this point of view, there are two articles, which will always stand among the leading principles of moral decision, the good to result from the action immediately proposed, and the advantage to the public of my preserving in existence and vigour the means of future usefulness. Every man, sufficicntly impressed with a sense of his debt to the species, will feel himself obliged to scruple the laying out his entire strength, and forfeiting his life, upon any single instance of public exertion. There is a certain proceeding which, in itself considered, I ought this day to adopt; change the circumstances, and make it unquestionable that, if adopted, my life will be the forfeit, will that make no change in my duty? This is a question which has been previously anticipated.1
In the meantime, to render the decision in the subject before us still more satisfactory, let us suppose a case in which the uttering a falsehood shall be the only means by which I can escape from a menace of instant destruction. Let it be that of a virtuous man, proscribed and hunted by the unjust usurpers of the government of his country, and who has reason to know that, if discovered, he will fall an immediate victim to their sanguinary policy. Ought he, if questioned as to who he is, by their myrmidons, to render himself the instrument of their triumph in his death, rather than affirm an untruth? Ought the man to whom he may have entrusted his secret and his life to preserve his sincerity, at the expense of betraying his trust, and destroying his friend? Let us state the several arguments that offer themselves on both sides of this question.
The advantages affirmed of sincerity in general will be found equally to hold in this instance. All falsehood has a tendency to enervate the individual that practises it. With what sentiments of mind is he to utter the falsehood in question? Shall he endeavour to render it complete, and effectually to mislead the persons to whom it relates? This will require a systematical hypocrisy, and a vigilant attention lest his features and gestures should prove so many indications of what is passing in his mind. Add to this, that by such a conduct he is contributing his part to the cutting off the intercourse between men's tongues and their sentiments, infusing general distrust, and trifling with the most sacred pledge of human integrity. To assert, in a firm and resolute manner, the thing that is not, is an action from which the human mind unconquerably revolts. To avow the truth with a spirited defiance of consequences has something in it so liberal and magnanimous as to produce a responsive feeling in every human heart. Nor is it to be forgotten that the threatened consequences can scarcely, in any instance, be regarded as certain. The intrepidity of his behaviour, the sobriety and dignified moderation of his carriage, and the reasonableness of his expostulations may be such as to disarm the bitterest foe.
Let us consider the arguments on the other side of the question. And here it may be observed that there is nothing really humiliating in the discharge of our duty. If it can be shown that compliance, in the instance described, is that which it is incumbent to yield, then, without doubt, we ought to feel self-approbation, and not censure in the yielding it. There are many duties which the habits of the world make us feel it humiliating to discharge, as well as many vices in which we pride ourselves; but this is the result of prejudice, and ought to be corrected. Whatever it be that our duty requires of us, the man who is sufficiently enlightened will feel no repugnance to the performance. As to the influence of our conduct upon other men, no doubt, so far as relates to example, we ought to set an example of virtue, of real virtue, not of that which is merely specious. It will also frequently happen, in cases similar to that above described, that the memory of what we do will be entirely lost; our proceeding is addressed to prejudiced persons, who will admit no virtue in the man they hate or despise. Is it probable that the effect of my fortitude in this act of unvarying sincerity will be more extensively beneficial to society than all my future life, however industrious and however pure? Cases might easily have been put of private animosity, where my generous self-devotion would scarcely in any instance be heard of. No mistake can be more painful to an impartial observer than to see an individual of great utility irretrievably thrown away upon a trivial adventure. It may also be worth remarking that the most virtuous man that lives is probably guilty of some acts of insincerity in every day of his life. Though therefore he ought not lightly to add to the catalogue, yet surely there is something extremely contrary to reason in finding the same man deviating from a general rule of conduct for the most trifling and contemptible motives, and immediately after repelling an additional deviation at the expense of his life. As to the argument drawn from the uncertainty of the threatened consequences, it must be remembered that some degree of this uncertainty adheres to all human affairs; and that all calculation of consequences, or in other words all virtue, depends upon our adopting the greater probability, and rejecting the less.
No doubt considerable sacrifices (not only of the imbecility of our character, which ought in all instances to be sacrificed without mercy, but) of the real advantages of life, ought to be made, for the sake of preserving, with ourselves and others, a confidence in our veracity. He who, being sentenced by a court of judicature for some action that he esteems laudable, is offered the remission of his sentence, provided he will recant his virtue, ought probably, in every imaginable case, to resist the proposal. Much seems to depend upon the formality and notoriety of thc action. It may probably be wrong to be minutely scrupulous with a drunken bigot in a corner, who should require of me an assent to his creed with a pistol at my breast; and right peremptorily to refuse all terms of qualification, when solemnly proposed by a court of judicature in the face of a nation.
If there be cases where I ought not to scruple to violate the truth, inasmuch as the alternative consists in my certain destruction, it is at least as much incumbent on me when the life of my neighbour is at stake. Indeed, the moment any exception is admitted to the general principle of unreserved sincerity, it becomes obviously im possible to fix the nature of all the exceptions. The rule respecting them must be that, wherever a great and manifest evil arises from disclosing the truth, and that evil appears to be greater than the evil to arise from violating, in this instance, the general barrier of human confidence and virture, there the obligation of sincerity is suspended.
Nor is it a valid objection to say"that, by such a rule, we are making every man a judge in his own case." In the courts of morality it cannot be otherwise; a pure and just system of thinking admits not of the existence of any infallible judge to whom we can appeal. It might indeed be further objected "that, by this rule, men will be called upon to judge in the moment of passion and partiality, instead of being referred to the past decisions of their cooler reason." But this also is an inconvenience inseparable from human affairs. We must and ought to keep our selves open, to the last moment, to the influence of such considerations as may appear worthy to influence us. To teach men that they must not trust their own understandings is not the best scheme for rendering them virtuous and consistent. On the contrary, to inure them to consult their understanding is the way to render it worthy of becoming their director and guide.
Nothing which has been alleged under this head of exception produces the smallest alteration in what was offered under the general discussion. All the advantages, the sublime and illustrious effects, which attend upon an ingenuous conduct, remain unimpeached. Sincerity, a generous and intrepid frankness, will still be found to occupy perhaps the first place in the catalogue of human virtues. This is the temper that ought to pervade the whole course of our reflections and actions. It should be acted upon every day, and confirmed in us every night. There is nothing which we ought to reject with more unalterable firmness than an action that, by its consequences, reduces us to the necessity of duplicity and concealment. No man can be eminently either respectable, or amiable, or useful, who is not distinguished for the frankness and candour of his manners. This is the grand fascination, by which we lay hold of the hearts of our neighbours, conciliate their attention, and render virtue an irresistible object of imitation. He that is not conspicuously sincere either very little partakes of the passion of doing good, or is pitiably ignorant of the means by which the purposes of true benevolence are to be effected.
Book II, Chap. VI, pp. 200-201; Book III, Chap. VI, p. 241.