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I shall first explain the meaning, and then confirm the truth, of this observation.
Every thing has a nature which is peculiar to itself, and which is essential to its very existence. Light has a nature by which it is distinguished from darkness. Sweet has a nature by which it is distinguished from bitter. Animals have a nature by which they are distinguished from men. Men have a mature by which they are distinguished from angels. Angels have a nature by which they are distinguished from God. And God has a nature by which he is distinguished from all other beings. Now such different natures lay a foundation for different obligations; and different obligations lay a foundation for virtue and vice in all their different degrees. As virtue and vice, therefore, take their origin from the nature of things, so the difference between moral good and moral evil is as immutable as the nature of things from which it results. It is as Impossible in the nature of things that the essential distinction between virtue and vice should cease, as that the essential distinction between light and darkness, bitter and sweet, should cease. These distinctions do not depend upon the mere will of the Deity; for so long as he continues the nature of things, no law or command of his can change light into darkness, bitter into sweet, or virtue into vice. And this is what we mean by the assertion that virtue and vice are essentially different in the nature of things. Having fixed the meaning, I proceed to show the truth of this assertion. And the truth of it will appear, if we consider,
1. That the essential difference between virtue and vice may be known by those who are wholly ignorant of God. The barbarians, who saw the viper on Paul's hand, knew the nature and illdesert of murder. The pagans, who were in the ship with Jonah, knew the difference between natural and moral evil, and considered the former as a proper and just punishment of the latter. The natives of this country know the nature and obligation of promises and mutual contracts, as well as our wisest politicians, who form national treaties and compacts with them. And even little children know the nature of virtue and vice, and are able to perceive the essential difference between truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, kindness and unkindness, obedience and disobedience, as well as their parents, or any other persons who are acquainted with God and the revelation of his will. But how would children and heathens discover the essential difference between moral good and evil, if this difference were not founded in the nature of things? They are totally ignorant of God, and of consequence totally ignorant of his revealed will. It is impossible, therefore, that they
should know that any thing is either right or wrong, virtuous or vicious, because God has either required or forbidden it. But if the essential difference between right and wrong results from the nature of things, then those who are entirely unacquainted with God and his laws may be able to discover it. Heathens, on this supposition, may know that murder is a crime, though they never knew God nor heard of the sixth commandment, which says, "Thou shalt not kill." And children, who know no difference between the Bible and other books in respect to divine authority, may know the criminality of lying and stealing, and feel their moral obligations to refrain from these and other moral evils. Accordingly we find that both those who never heard of the Bible, and those who never read it, are as capable of discerning the difference between moral good and evil, as those who make it their business to study and explain the sacred oracles. And this is a clear evidence that the essential difference between virtue and vice results, not from the will of God, but from the nature of things
2. Men are capable of judging what is right or wrong in respect to the divine character and conduct. This God implicitly allows, by appealing to their own judgment, whether he has not treated them according to perfect rectitude. In the context, he solemnly calls upon his people to judge of the propriety and benignity of his conduct towards them. "And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it? Wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?" He makes a similar appeal to the same people, by the prophet Jeremiah. "Thus saith the Lord, What iniquity - have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain?" He says by the prophet Ezekiel, "Hear now, O house of Israel; is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?" And he repeats the question, to give it a greater emphasis. "O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?" By the prophet Micah, he appeals not only to Israel, but to all the world, whether he had not treated them with the greatest propriety and tenderness. "Hear now what the Lord saith: Arise, contend before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice. Hear ye, O mountains, the Lord's controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth; for the Lord hath a controversy with his people, and he will plead with Israel. O my people what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against me. For I brought thee out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I
sent before thee Moses, Aaron and Miriam. O my people, remember now what Balak king of Moab consulted, and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him frorn Shittim` unto Gilgal, that ye may know the righteousness of the Lord." In these solemn appeals to the consciences of men, God does not require them to believe that his character is good because it is his character; nor that his laws are good because they are his laws; nor that his conduct is good because it is his conduct. But he allows them to judge of his character, his laws and his conduct, according to the immutable difference between right and wrong, in the nature of things; which is the infallible rule, by which to judge of the moral conduct of all moral beings. In every instance, therefore, in which God refers his conduct to the judgment of men, he gives the strongest attestation to the immutable difference between right and wrong in the nature of things.
3. God cannot destroy this difference without destroying the nature of things. If he should make a law on purpose to destroy the distinction between virtue and vice, it would have no tendency to destroy it. Or if he should make a law which should forbid us to love him with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves, it would not destroy the obligation of his first and great command. As no positive precepts can destroy the nature of things, so no positive precepts can destroy our obligations to do what is right, and to avoid what is wrong. While God remains what he is, it will be our duty to obey him, and not his duty to obey us. While we remain what we are, it will be our duty to do unto others as we would that they should do unto us. And while all moral beings remain what they are, it will be criminal in them to exercise cruelty, injustice or malevolence towards one another. Hence it is evident that even Omnipotence cannot destroy the essential distinction between virtue and vice, without destroying the nature of things. And this clearly proves that virtue and vice are immutably different in the nature of things, independently of the will or pleasure of the Supreme Being. I may add,
4. That the Deity cannot alter the nature of things so as to destroy the essential distinction between virtue and vice. We can conceive that God should make great alterations in us, and in the objects about us; but we cannot conceive that he should make any alterations in us, and in the objects about us, which should transform virtue into vice, or vice into virtue, or which should destroy their essential difference. No possible alteration in the nature of things can make it our duty to lie, or steal, or murder, or exercise the least malevolence towards our fellow-creatures. This must always be sinful in our world,
and in any other world of moral agents. Suppose God should create a new world, and fill it with a new race of moral beings. We cannot conceive that he should so frame the new world, and so constitute the minds of the new race of moral agents, as that they should feel themselves under moral obligation to lie, and steal, and murder, and to avoid every exercise and expression of real benevolence. But if God cannot destroy the essential difference between virtue and vice, either by an act of his power, or by an act of his authority, then it is absolutely certain that this difference depends not on his will, but on the nature of things, and must remain as long as moral beings exist.
I might now proceed to improve the subject, were it not proper to take notice of one or two objections which may be made against what has been said.
Objection 1. To suppose that the difference between virtue and vice results from the nature of things, is derogatory and injurious to the character of God. For, on this supposition, there is a standard of right and wrong superior to the will of the Deity, to which he is absolutely bound to submit.
To say that the difference between right and wrong does not depend upon the will of God, but upon the nature of things, is no more injurious to his character than to say that it does not depend upon his will whether two and two shall be equal to four; whether a circle and square shall be different figures; whether the whole shall be greater than a part; or whether a thing shall exist and not exist at the same time. These things do not depend upon the will of God, because they cannot depend upon his will. So the difference between virtue and vice does not depend upon the will of God, because his will cannot make or destroy this immutable difference. And it is more to the honor of God to suppose that he cannot, than that he can, perform impossibilities. But if the eternal rule of right must necessarily result from the nature of things, then it is no reproach to the Deity to suppose that he is morally obliged to conform to it. To set God above the law of rectitude, is not to exalt, but to debase his character. It is the glory of any moral agent to conform to moral obligation. The supreme excellency of the Deity consists, not in always doing what he pleases, but in always pleasing to do what is fit and proper in the nature of things.
Objection 2. There is no other difference between virtue and vice than what arises from custom, education, or caprice. Different nations judge differently upon moral subjects. What one nation esteems a vice, another nation esteems a virtue. We esteem stealing a moral evil; but the Spartans taught their children to steal, and approved and rewarded them for it.
We esteem murder a great and heinous crime; but the Chinese put their aged and useless parents to death, and destroy their weak, sickly, deformed children without the least remorse. Such contrariety in the opinions and practices of different nations refutes the notion of an immutable standard of right and wrong in the nature of things.
This objection is more specious than solid. For, in the first place, it is certain that all nations do feel and acknowledge the essential distinction between virtue and vice. They all have words to express this distinction between right and wrong. And since words are framed for use, we may presume that no nation would frame words to express ideas or feelings which never entered their minds. Besides, all nations have some penal laws, which are made to punish those who are guilty of criminal actions. It is, therefore, impossible to account for some words and some laws which are to be found among all nations, without supposing that they feel and regard the essential distinction between virtuous and vicious conduct.
This leads me to observe, in the second place, that no nation ever did deny the distinction between virtue and vice. Though the Spartans allowed their children to take things from others without their knowledge and consent, yet they did not mean to allow them to steal, in order to increase their wealth, and gratify a sordid avaricious spirit. They meant to distinguish between taking and stealing. The former they considered as a mere art, which was suited to teach their children skill and dexterity in their lawful pursuits; but the latter they detested and punished as an infamous crime. So when the Chinese expose their useless children, or their useless parents, they mean to do it as an act of kindness both to their friends and to the public. For in all other cases, they abhor murder, or the killing of men from malice prepense, as much as any other nation in the world. There is nothing, therefore, in the practice of the Spartans, nor in the practice of the Chinese, which leads us to suppose that any nation ever denied the essential distinction between virtue and vice. But though the heathens have never denied this distinction, yet their practice has often shown that they have mistaken vice for virtue. The Spartans did, in indulging their children in the practice of taking things from others without their knowledge and consent. And the Chinese are guilty of the same mistake, in their conduct towards their superannuated parents, and unpromising children. But these, and all other mistakes of the same nature, are to be ascribed to the corruption of the human heart, which blinds and stupifies the conscience, and prevents it from doing its proper office; which is to discover the nature of moral actions, and distin