Consequences of the preceding chapter; reflections on
the distinctions of just, honest, and useful.
1. THE reflections,
contained in the foregoing chapter, give us to understand, that there is a vast
deal of ambiguity and mistake in the different sentiments of writers, in
relation to morality or the foundation of natural laws. They do not always
ascend to the first principles, neither do they define and distinguish exactly;
they suppose an opposition between ideas, that are reconciled, and ought even
to be joined together. Some reason in too abstract a manner on the human
system; and, following only their own metaphysical speculations, never attend
sufficiently to the actual state of things, and to the natural dependance of
man. Others, considering principally this dependance, reduce the whole to the
will and orders of the sovereign master, and seem thus to lose sight of the
very nature and internal constitution of man, from which it cannot however be
separated. These different ideas are just in themselves; yet we must not
establish the one by excluding the other, or by explaining it to the other's
prejudice. Reason, on the contrary, requires us to unite them, in order to find
the true principles of the human system, whose foundations must be sought for
in the nature and state of man.
II. It is very common to use the words utility, justice, honesty,
order, and fitness; but these different notions are seldom defined
in an exact manner, and some of them are frequently confounded. This want of
exactness must necessarily create ambiguity and confusion; wherefore, if we
intend to make things clear, we must take care to define and distinguish
An useful action may methinks be defined that, which of itself tends to
the preservation and perfection of man.
A just action that, which is considered as conformable to the will of a
superior, who commands.
An action is called honest, when it is considered as conformable to the
maxims of right reason, agreeable to the dignity of our nature, deserving of
the approbation of man, and consequently procuring respect and honor to the
person, who does it.
By order we can understand nothing else, but the disposition of several
things, relative to a certain end, and proportioned to the effect we intend to
Finally, as to fitness or agreeableness, it bears a very great affinity
with order. It is a relation of conformity between several things, one of which
is of itself proper for the preservation and perfection of the other, and
contributes to maintain it in a good and advantageous state.
[Just, honest, and useful, are distinct things, and must not be
III. We must not therefore confound the words just,
useful, and honest; for they are three distinct ideas. But,
though distinct from one another, they have no opposition; they are three
relations, which may all agree, and be applied to one single action, considered
under different respects. And, if we ascend so high as the first origin, we
shall find, that they are all derived from one common source, or from one and
the same principle, as three branches from the same stock. This general
principle is the approbation of reason. Reason necessarily approves whatever
conducts us to real happiness; and as that, which is agreeable to the
preservation and perfection of man, that, which is conformable to the will of
the sovereign master, on whom he depends, and that, which procures him the
esteem and respect of his equals; as all this, I say, contributes to his
happiness, reason cannot but approve of each of these things separately
considered, much less can it help approving, under different respects, an
action, in which all these properties are found united.
[But though they are distinct, yet they are naturally connected.]
IV. For such is the state of things, that the ideas of just, honest, and
useful, are naturally connected, and as it were inseparable; at least if we
attend, as we ought to do, to real, general, and lasting utility. We may say,
that such an utility becomes a kind of characteristic to distinguish what is
truly just, or honest, from what is so only in the erroneous opinions of men.
This is a beautiful and judicious remark of Cicero.The language and opinions of men are very
wide, says he, from truth and right reason, In separating the honest
from the useful, and in persuading themselves, that some honest things are not
useful, and other things are useful but not honest. This Is a dangerous notion
to human life. — Hence we see, that Socrates detested those sophists, who
first separated those two things in opinion, which In nature are really
In fact, the more we investigate the plan of divine providence, the more
we find the Deity has thought proper to connect the moral good and evil with
the physical, or, which is the same thing, the just with the useful. And though
in some particular cases the thing seems otherwise, this is only an accidental
disorder, which is much less a natural consequence of the system, than an
effect of the ignorance or malice of man. Whereto we must add, that, in case we
do not stop at the first appearances, but proceed to consider the human system
in its full extent, we shall find, that, every thing well considered, and all
compensations made, these irregularities will be one day or other redressed, as
we shall more fully show, when we come to treat of the sanctions of natural
[Whether an action is just because God commands it.]
V. Here a question is sometimes proposed, whether a thing be just
because God commands it, or whether God commands it because it is just?
Pursuant to our principles, the question is not at all difficult. A
thing is just because God commands it; this is implied by the definition we
gave of justice. But God commands such or such things, because these things are
reasonable in themselves, conformable to the order and ends he proposed to
himself in creating mankind, and agreeable to the nature and state of man.
These ideas, though distinct in themselves, are necessarily connected, and can
be separated only by a metaphysical abstraction.
[In what the beauty of virtue and the perfection of man consist.]
VI. Let us in fine observe, that this harmony or surprising agreement,
which naturally occurs between the ideas of just, honest, and useful,
constitutes the whole beauty of virtue, and informs us at the same time in what
the perfection of man consists.
In consequence of the different systems above mentioned, moralists are
divided with regard to the latter point. Some place the perfection of man in
such a use of his faculties, as is agreeable to the nature of his being. Others
in the use of our faculties and the intention of our Creator. Some in fine
pretend, that man is perfect, only as his manner of thinking and acting is
proper to conduct him to the end he aims at, namely his happiness.
But what we have above said sufficiently shows, that these three methods
of considering the perfection of man are very little different, and ought not
to be set in opposition. As they are interwoven with one another, we ought
rather to combine and unite them. The perfection of man consists really in the
possession of natural or acquired faculties, which enable us to obtain, and
actually put us in possession of solid felicity; and this in conformity to the
intention of our Creator, engraved in our nature, and clearly manifested by the
state, wherein he has placed us.
A modern writer has judiciously said, that to obey only through fear
of authority, or for the hope of recompense, without esteeming or loving virtue
for the sake of its own excellency, is mean and mercenary. On the contrary, to
practise virtue with an abstract view of us fitness and natural beauty, without
having any thought of the Creator and Conductor of the universe, is failing in
our duty to the first and greatest of Beings. He only, who acts jointly through
a principle of reason, through a motive of piety, and with a view of his
principal interest, is an honest, wise, and pious man; which constitutes,
without comparison, the worthiest and completest if characters.
1. In quo lapsa consuetude deflexit de via,
sensimque eò deducta est, ut honestatem ab utilitate secernens, et
constituent honestum esse aliquod, quod utile non esset, et utile, quod non
honestum: quâ nulla pernicies major hominum vitæ potuit adferri.
Cic. de Offic. lib. 2. cap. 3. Itaque accepimus, Socratem
exsecrari solitum eos, qui primum hæc naturâ cohærentia
opinione distraxissent. Idem. lib. 3. cap. 13. See likewise
Grotius, Rights of War and Peace, preliminary discourse § 17. and
following; and Puffendorf, Law of Nature and Nations, book. ii. chap.
iii. § 10, 11.
2. Theory of agreeable sensations, chap. viii.
Next | Previous | Contents | Text