Daily Archives: December 18, 2006

Item of the Day: Paley’s Philosophy (1787)

Full Title: The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy. By William Paley, M.A. Archdeacon of Carlisle. Dublin: Printed by Brett Smith, For Messrs. P Byrne, W. McKenzie, and W. Jones.





Moral Philosophy, Morality, Ethics Casuistry, Natural Law, mean all the same thing; namely, That science which teaches men their duty and the reasons of it.

The use of such a study depends upon this, that, without it, the rules of life, by which men are ordinarily governed, oftentimes mislead them, through a defect either in the rule, or in the application.

These rules are, the Laws of Honour, the Law of the Land, and the Scriptures.



The Law of Honour is a system of rules constructed by people of fashion, and calculated to facilitate their intercourse with one another; and for no other purpose. Consequently, nothing is adverted to by the Law of Honour, but what tends to incommode this intercourse.

Hence this law only prescribes and regulates the duties betwixt equals; omitting such as relate to the Supreme Being, as well as those which we owe to our inferiors.

For which reason, profaneness, neglect of public worship or private devotion, cruelty to servants, rigorous treatment of tenants or other dependants, want of charity to the poor, injuries done to tradesmen by insolvency or delay of payment, with numberless examples of the same kind, are accounted no breaches of honour; because a man is not a less agreeable companion for these vices, nor the worse to deal with, in those concerns which are usually transacted between one gentleman and another.

Again, the Law of Honour being constituted by men occupied in the pursuit of pleasure, and for the mutual conveniency of such men, will be found, as might be expected from the character and design of the law-makers, to be, in most instances, favourable to the licentious indulgence of the natural passions.

Thus it allows of adultery, drunkenness, prodigality, duelling, and of revenge in the extreme; and lays no stress upon the virtues opposite to these.



That part of mankind, who are beneath the Law of Honour, often make the Law of the Land their rule of life; that is, they are satisfied with themselves, so long as they do or omit nothing, for the doing or omitting of which the law can punish them.

Whereas every system of human laws, considered as a rule of life, labours under the two following defects.

I. Human laws omit many duties, as not objects of compulsion; such as piety to God, bounty to the poor, forgiveness of injuries, education of children, gratitude to benefactors.

The law never speaks but to command, nor commands but where it can compel; consequently those duties, which by their nature must be voluntary, are left out of the statute book, as lying beyond the reach of its operation and authority.

II. Human laws permit, or, which is the same thing, suffer to go unpunished, many crimes, because they are incapable of being defined by any previous description — Of which nature is luxury, prodigality, partiality in voting at those elections in which the qualification of the candidate ought to determine the success, caprice in the disposition of men’s fortunes at their death, disrespect to parents, and a multitude of similar examples.

For this is the alternative; either the Law must define beforehand and with precision the offences which it punishes, or it must be left to the discretion of the magistrate to determine upon each particular accusation, whether it constitutes that offence which the law designed to punish, or not; which is in effect leaving to the magistrate to punish or not to punish, at his pleasure, the individual who is brought before him: which is just so much tyranny. Where, therefore, as in the instances above-mentioned, the distinction between right and wrong is of too subtile or of too secret a nature, to be ascertained by any pre-concerted language, the law of most countries, especially of free states, rather than commit the liberty of the subject to the discretion of the magistrate, leaves men in such cases to themselves.


Whoever expects to find in the Scriptures a specific direction for every moral doubt that arises, looks for more than he will meet with. And to what a magnitude such a detail of particular precepts would have enlarged the sacred volume, may be partly understood from the following consideration. The laws of this country, including the acts of the legislature and the decisions of our supreme courts of justice, are not contained in fewer than fifty folio volumes; and yet it is not once in ten attempts that you can find the case you look for, in any law-book whatever, to say nothing of those numerous points of conduct, concerning which the law professes not to prescribe or determine anything. Had then the same particularity, which obtains in human laws so far as they go, been attempted in the Scriptures, throughout the whole extent of morality, it is manifest they would have been by much too bulky to be either read or circulated; or rather, as St. John says, “even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”

Morality is taught in Scripture in this wise. General rules are laid down of piety, justice, benevolence, and purity: such as worshipping God in spirit and in truth; doing as we would be done by; loving our neighbour as ourself; forgiving others, as we expect forgiveness from God; that mercy is better than sacrifice; that not that which entereth into a man, (nor by parity of reason, any ceremonial pollutions) but that which proceedeth from the heart, defileth him. These rules are occasionally illustrated either by fictitious examples, as in the parable of the good Samaritan; and of the cruel servant who refused to his fellow-servant that indulgence and compassion which his master had shewn to him: or in instances which actually presented themselves, as in Christ’s reproof of his disciples at the Samaritan village; his praise of the poor widow, who cast in her last mite; his censure of the Pharisees, who chose out the chief rooms — and of the tradition, whereby they evaded the command to sustain their indigent parents: or lastly, in the resolution of questions, which those who were about our Saviour proposed to him; as in his answer to the young man who asked him, “What lack I yet?” and to the honest scribe, who had found out, even in that age and country, that “to love God and his neighbour was more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifice.”

And this is in truth the way in which all practical sciences are taught, as Arithmetic, Grammar, Navigation, and the like. — Rules are laid down, and examples are subjoined; not that these examples are the cases, which less all the cases which will actually occur, but by way only of explaining the principle of the rule, and as so many specimens of the method of applying it. The chief difference is, that the examples in Scripture are not annexed to the rules with the didactic regularity to which we are now-a-days accustomed, but delivered dispersedly, as particular occasions suggested them; which gave them however, especially to those who heard them, and were present to the occasions which produced them, an energy and persuasion, which beyond what the same or any instances would have appeared with, in their places in a system.

Beside this, the Scriptures commonly pre-suppose, in the persons to whom they speak, a knowledge of the principles of natural justice; and are employed not so much to teach new rules of morality, as to enforce the practice of it by new sanctions, and by a greater certainty: which last seems to be the proper business of a revelation from God, and what was most wanted.

Thus, the “unjust, covenant breakers and extortioners” are condemned in Scripture, supposing it known, or leaving it, where it admits of doubt, to moralists to determine, what injustice, extortion, or breach of covenant are.

The above considerations are intended to prove that the Scriptures do not supersede the use of the science of which we profess to treat, and at the same time to acquit them of any charge of imperfection or insufficiency on that account.


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Filed under 1780's, Philosophy, Posted by Rebecca Dresser