WE are constantly pronouncing judgments upon the worth of actions. Some satisfy us and others do not; some are right and some are wrong. We do not mean by this that they are, or are not, of advantage to us personally, — the satisfaction we demand is in view of a standard quite apart from our personal interests. We have at heart certain ideals of conduct which we like to see reflected in the actions of men about us. Whether a falsehood or any wrong done to another affects us or not, we may feel none the less that it is wrong, that it should not have been. We may understand the train of circumstances which led to the act, we may have a tinge of sympathy for the doer softening our condemnation of what he has done; but it is wrong, nevertheless, and we know that we should go too far with our sympathy if it led us to forget this. We may be mistaken in our judgments about particular cases; motives change the character of acts, and we do not always know the motives. We only know that if there are such and such motives, the act is morally right or wrong; but supposing them to exist, we pronounce confidently on its moral character. The right is what should be ; it is an idea having this altogether peculiar relation to the fact. Even if our circumstances should change, and our wishes come somehow to be gratified or our personal interests served by the wrong being done, it would be wrong none the less, and we should, in a real moment, condemn ourselves for desiring it. The right is, indeed, independent of our wishes or our interests. In accordance with these we can only say that we should like to have something be ; we cannot say it ought to be : we can only say that, as we rise into a higher atmosphere, as we transcend personal considerations, as we speak from the standpoint of reason.
The right is also independent of the wishes or personal interests of another. Right does not mean giving up my wishes to your wishes, or sacrificing my personal advantage to your personal advantage. Your wishes must be right, must conform with an impersonal standard, — your personal advantage must be in harmony with the universal advantage, else I cannot yield to it. Morality is not sympathy: in many cases it may be that I ought to deny another as well as myself. Sympathy is simply a natural instinct, better indeed and nobler than selfishness, but liable to lead us astray as truly as selfishness unless guided and controlled by moral considerations. Sympathy is personal ; morality is impersonal. Even if it is your dearest friend who has done a wrong, it is none the less wrong, and gravity must mingle with your tenderness in thinking of it.
The right and wrong, we feel further, are independent of our changing opinions about them. When our eyes are open, we see the sun ; when they are closed, it is lost to us ; should we become blind, it would be lost to us forever. In such a case vain would be any one's effort to prove to us that it still shone, if we were obstinate, and insisted on the authority of present experience alone to prove that it did; but for all that it would still be there, and if we were reasonable and would call to mind our former experience, we might be assured of it. So there are moments in our moral experience which outweigh in authority all others. In such calm, clear moments we know, we say, that we see the truth ; at other times, overborne by our passions or our prejudices, overawed by the contrary customs and opinions of men, we may almost be aware that we are losing sight of it, but it is there all the same. If one asks why we do not always see it if it is always there, the answer is that we do not always try to see it, our concern being often rather to justify our passions and our prejudices. If one asks why the customs and opinions of men have often been so various and contradictory, I answer that these customs and opinions have been, in the main, formed by other than rational considerations. Men have rarely sought, with a single eye, for the right and wrong of things; their customs and opinions have at best simply a little morality mixed with them. The time is yet to come when men, divesting themselves as best they may of personal considerations, shall seek to reflect in their thought the pure ideals of morality. Moral culture—I mean in general the disinterested attempt to fashion human life after the ideals of morality — is in its veriest infancy; it is as science was before the birth of a Bacon or a Darwin. Men had not sought the truth; they studied Nature, if they studied it at all, to confirm certain old theories of cosmogony or theology.
Where can you find now the disinterested student of morality, — patient, painstaking, laborious, scrupulous, ridding himself of attachment to mere custom and opinion, and seeking only for the perfect right ? When such students arise, and men become as eager to explore the world of moral ideas as they are now to explore the realms of Nature, there will gradually arise, I believe, an increasing agreement as to moral conceptions, as there is now coming to be an increasing agreement among disinterested observers as to scientific fact. The opinions of men are still various as to matters of science; but we do not doubt that some opinions are true though others are false, for the test of truth is conformity to fact, — and fact is not various, but one. Even though we do not know what opinions are true and what are false, we know that such a thing as truth or falsehood exists, and that it is for us to find them out in each particular case. So I grant that as to many things we may not know clearly the right and the wrong; there may be various and contradictory opinions about them; and yet we may feel that there is a right and wrong, and that it is for us to find them out in each particular case. No more than the facts of Nature are the ideals of morality dependent on our opinion of them; there is a true, a best, a wholly right way of doing everything. It is not for us to make this, to try to create it; we cannot, indeed, make it or create it any more than we can the sun in the heavens; we have simply to discover it.