WHAT is it that gives a moral quality to an action, that lends it moral worth ? I do not mean to contrast moral with immoral actions,— but what of the multitude of our every-day actions against which nothing can be said from a conventional stand-point, deserve to be singled out and have this mark of honor attached to them; namely, that they are moral actions ? Most of our actions are probably simply unmoral. In our conduct, we do as others do about us ; we think and act according to the prevailing customs. There is not necessarily any hypocrisy in this ; by a kind of natural gravitation we settle into the grooves that are already prepared for us. Not only is there nothing wrong about this, but relatively speaking there may be something good. Society, perhaps, is scarcely possible (or was, in the early ages of the world) without something of an instinct of imitation among men, which holds in check caprice and lawless individualism. Still the mere following of custom and usage, however useful to society, cannot be said to rise to the dignity of morality.
A moral act must be our own act. It must spring from conviction. A purely conventional life is without moral significance. We begin really to live when we wake out of this unconscious instinctive following of precedents and customs, and know that we are ourselves and have minds to use, and when we begin to use them. What we do when we are awake, aroused; what expresses our individuality, — that has moral worth, and that alone. This is entirely apart from what particular thing we think or do, or whether we even join the popular current again; for though when one thinks for himself, it is unlikely that he will not vary somewhat from the hitherto prevailing custom, the trouble with the conventional life is not as to its particular ideas and customs, but that it is conventional, that it expresses no personal, genuine conviction. A moral action may be in entire accord with what convention demands ; yet it will always be vastly more than that. Morality is the assertion of ourselves. How sad is his plight who has no sacred self; who never falls back on a conviction, as a believer on his gods, because he has none; who lives all out-of-doors; whose soul is the empty mirror of the world's passing fashions and shows ! A man who once defied a world, and yet lived to see the world come around to him, and is one of the ideal figures in our country's history, — Wendell Phillips, — said in addressing a mixed assembly on the slavery question, "Till you judge men and things on different principles, I do not care much what you think of me; I have outgrown that interesting anxiety." 1 No man rises into the dignity of moral individuality till he says the same. A man should have no other ultimate anxiety than to please the genius of his own bosom. " Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist," said Emerson; and it is true in spirit, if not always in form. Man must act for himself, or he is lost. One looks abroad and sees men and women blindly following the ruling traditions in religion, society, politics, with scarcely a serious, lonely thought crossing their minds : they are all lost, and will be till they come home to themselves, and begin to live a real, inward, personal life. The supreme profanation is not against church or sacrament or Bible, but against the clearest, sanest thought of your own mind. I will not say the lesson, but the significance of morality is, independence of public opinion, having the centre and rule of our life not in the world without, but in a world within; so that even if we harmonize with the world without, if we coincide with public opinion, it will be not as an echo, but as a living factor in it.
1 Orations, Speeches, etc., p. 66.
If, however, a moral act must be our own act, not one merely in accordance with conventional standards, it goes almost without saying that it must be one not merely followed by good results, but one in which those results are intended. We must not only do good, but mean to do good. Yes, the whole properly moral significance of an action is in its intention. Two actions may have exactly the same outward results, yet be separated by a heaven-wide distance in moral worth, according as they are prompted by one motive or another; and these motives are of course only really known, because alone experienced, by those doing the actions. The attempt is sometimes made to divest ethics of all these inward and, as it is said, mysterious elements, and to reduce it to a question simply of results. Any action is to be counted moral which has good results, or immoral which has evil, quite apart from motives. It is perfectly true that an action does not have good results simply because they are intended, — just as a thought is not necessarily true because it aims at the truth. Hell, it has been said, is paved with good intentions, and at any rate we know that the earth is well covered with them, and that often they bring forth little sound or lasting fruit. How many kind-hearted persons, for example, give charity in such a way that it does more harm than good ! The trouble is not with the kind-heartedness or the charity, but with the lack of intelligence that is displayed; and the real remedy is not to depreciate charity, but to light it up with intelligence. An action really ceases to have a moral quality if it does not take advantage of all the light and knowledge by which it may be directed; and those who would turn ethics into a species of social mechanics do not realize that automata would do as well as men for these merely outward effects, perhaps better. Indeed, Professor Huxley says that if some great Power would agree to make him always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of his allowing himself to be turned into a sort of clock, and wound up every morning before he got out of bed, he should instantly close with the offer.1 What an infinite saving of pains and trouble such an arrangement would be ! Yet I doubt if there is one in a hundred or a thousand who would share with Mr. Huxley in such a readiness; who would not rather say with Lessing, if God held out " truth " in one hand and " seek after truth" in another, that in all humility he would take "seek after truth".
1 Lay Sermons, etc., p. 840.