Granted, however, that there is a right independent of our changing wishes and opinions, how, it may be asked, can the right be spoken of as a law ? Laws we know of in Nature, or in connection with the State. Is not the right, it may be asked, simply an idea of our minds ? But if we reflect a moment, we shall realize that it enters into the very notion of right to be a law. The good and the right are simply what should be ; they are nothing of themselves, they have no meaning or reality, save as ideals of action. They have a sovereign relation to action, they are laws of action; and I question if they are not more truly laws than any of the State, or even of physical Nature. The laws- of the State are not really laws unless they are good laws ; they do not bind us. An immoral law, like the Fugitive-Slave Law, may be broken every day; it may be affirmed by the judge and commanded by the commonwealth, and yet be no law at all. That only is a law which binds me, to which I must yield allegiance if I am to preserve my honor as a rational being. It may be questioned whether the laws of Nature the law of gravitation, for example, the law of cohesion, the law of chemical affinity are properly called laws at all; they are simply statements of facts,regular, constant, invariable, if you please, but only facts, and a law is properly a prescription of what facts ought to be. We may wholly deceive ourselves if we think of the law of gravitation as anything outside of the facts themselves, as something which, as we say in common parlance, the facts obey; the law may be but a statement of the facts, simply summing them up in a convenient way. It might be added that a law of morals is more truly a law than the so-called laws of health or laws of business. A law of health means that if we want a perfect physical condition we must live in a certain way, we must maintain certain habits; but suppose we do not aspire to such a perfect condition, what do the laws of health signify ? The laws of business mean that there are certain essential conditions of business success: but if we are not ambitious in that direction, or if we do not enter upon a business career at all, what do these laws of business signify ? The laws of health and the laws of business merely declare that if we desire certain ends, we must use certain means; but so far as their obligation upon us goes, all depends upon whether we desire the ends. If I wish to go to Europe, I must cross the ocean; it is the only possible way of getting there, it might be called the law of getting there; but the law means nothing if I do not wish to go. A law of morals is totally different from this. It signifies not only that there are certain means we must take to achieve our ends, but that there are certain ends binding upon us, which we must choose if we are to maintain our character as rational beings. The laws of morals are sometimes sought to be explained by showing that they point the way which one must take to secure the general welfare ; if one chooses the general welfare as his end in life, he must act according to these laws, for experience has proved that they and they alone conduce to the general welfare. But suppose that one says, "I do not choose the general welfare," if morality means nothing more than the explanation just given, what possible obligation has it upon him?
In fact, morality must mean more or it is nothing at all, no more than the law of crossing the ocean. Morality rises above our wishes and wants just as truly in the determination of our ends as of the means by which we must reach them. Morality is nothing but reason uttering itself; and there are rational ends just as truly as there are rational means of attaining them. If a man does not choose the general welfare, the laws of morality are none the less binding upon him. Morality says, You ought to choose the general welfare. It indeed covers all our voluntary action; it is in nowise dependent upon what we do or what we fail to do, it is simply an ideal for doing. It is co-extensive with the whole of our active life; not an act, nor a wish, nor a want, nor a thought, nor a judgment, nor any utterance but may be confronted with the question, Is it in harmony with the standard of right, which is sovereign over all ?
Thus is a higher law unfolded to us in the very nature of morality ; it is given to us in our very constitution as rational beings. We call it a higher law because it is independent of the standard to which men ordinarily pay respect. How powerful is custom! how often does it almost lull to sleep the voice of conscience ! Yet the question may always be raised, Are the customs right; do they conform to the requirements of the law that is above them ? How easy it is to glide along with the current of popular sentiment, to think and love and hate as people about us do! Yet any popular sentiment can be brought before a higher bar; and from that bar a judgment will go out as to whether such sentiment has a right to be and we have a right to follow it, or whether it is our duty to seek to reform it. The higher law is independent of the requirements of statutes. We can only say, fortunate are the statutes if they reflect the higher law, and so hold up an ideal for the people ; for if they do not, if they contradict the higher law, it and not they are to be obeyed. The whole meaning of ethics is in the sense of an invisible authority ; to bow to custom, to public opinion, or to law, is moral idolatry.
Whence comes the authority of this law that is within and over us ? The ordinary answers seem to me here entirely to fail. Many of our particular duties may have their sanction in that they tend to the general welfare. But what is the sanction for the supreme duty of seeking the general welfare ? Who can give a reason for this ? The sources of the authority of the laws of the statute book in our democratic communities are in the will of the people. Civil governments, we say, derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But there is no practical consent on the part of men generally to the supremacy of the laws of morality. The practical consent of most men is to the law of individual self-interest ; but if men should consent to the laws of morality, they would, if they were candid, consent to them with the feeling that those laws had an inherent right to rule, and the question would still remain, Whence comes this right ? Plainly, morality the higher law does not rest on our consent to it, nor is the right determined by a majority or any kind of vote. It is there, commanding us whether we consent to it or not; our business is to give our allegiance to it as a sovereign whom we have not placed upon, and cannot displace from, his throne. Ethics and politics are distinct in their methods of operation. The last basis for popular sovereignty itself is not that the people have a right to do as they please, but that the people are more likely to rule right than any one man or class of men is. The ultimate authority of the laws of the people, just as truly as those of any king or lord, rests on their conformity to a higher standard of justice and of right. Homer speaks of:
" That worst of tyrants, an usurping crowd." 1