Hence I doubt if any of these instances from the history of religion are really contrary to the opinion I have advanced, that when a man sincerely asks, What ought I to do, irrespective of the fear or favor of God or man ? his answer is in some measure right. Of course, if there has been no idea of a right, beyond the tribe or the church or the God, the wrong-doers we have mentioned were not really responsible for the wrong they did; nay, their duty was only to act according to the highest standard of right they knew. No man is bound to act against his conscience, even if his conscience commands a murder; none the less should we say that his conscience in such a case was not a true conscience, that it did not conform to that perfect standard of right in harmony with which all consciences should be. But in very truth it is doubtful whether any of the acts we have considered were done under stress of conscience; they were rather done under the blind promptings of religious zeal, and religious zeal and conscience may be, as their whole history shows, entirely different things.
Yet even if this view could not be maintained, if there were instances in which not merely religious feeling but the moral sense itself had unmistakably gone wrong in the past, this would not necessarily affect our confidence in the affirmations of the moral sense now. No part of our nature seems to be guaranteed infallibility; our senses and our understanding sometimes deceive us, yet we have a perfect confidence that in their normal exercise they are trustworthy. We are not any the less certain now that the world is round because men formerly supposed it was flat, even if they had been willing to go to the stake for such a conviction. I suppose we may say we are absolutely certain that the world is round; and even if we were not absolutely certain, the fact itself would certainly be one way or the other, , it could not be both. So, may we not be absolutely sure of certain moral principles, while admitting fully that there has been development in the knowledge of these principles, and occasionally a falling away from the knowledge of them even after it has been gained ?
The question of an absolute morality is, after all, not whether man changes, but whether principles change. The question is, Are there not unalterable principles for human conduct, whether human conduct conforms to them, and whether men have any adequate knowledge of them, or not ? Take any principle that we are most sure of to-day, of equality before the law, for example, or of the right of each one to own his own person, and are we not sure that any departure from it would be a departure from the true ideal for human society ; that if the interests of order or civilization should seem to demand the departure, such an order or type of civilization would be false and vicious, and would lead sooner or later to its own overthrow ? Even if our selfish interests should come to blind our own eyes, as was often the case with the Southern slaveholders, and we defend and treat as sacred the wrongs we have occasioned, would they any the less be wrongs though we should cease to regard them as such, and though no living man pronounced as to their real character ? I think we feel, in contemplating such an example, that our moral sense does not make right and wrong any more than our interests or our desires, but simply finds them, just as we open our eyes upon the wondrous order of the world about us, and know that not it, but we, are new comers on the scene. It is as with the conditions of health: does any one think that he can change these at will, or that his thought of them can make them one particle different from what they would be altogether apart from his thought ? The conditions of the universal good or welfare are just as fixed and unalterable, so far as our will or our thought are concerned; and the universal good or welfare is the highest aim of morality, by every act we do or leave undone we help or hinder its attainment, and our moral task is, at each time and in every act, to hinder the least and help the most. We do not always know what to do : morality is often a problem to us; but the problem is, we feel, not to do as we like, trusting that it will turn out for the best, but to learn the right thing to do, and only that, we feel, will or can turn out for the best. We do not make an act one particle better by thinking it is good if it is not really good, nor one particle less harmful by speciously justifying or excusing it. Acts are good or bad just in so far as they correspond with the requirements of the nature of things, in so far as they advance or retard the ends which Nature herself has at heart. There is a way of living now for you and me, perhaps in a measure different for each according to our circumstances and capacities, that would tend to bring nearer the time when the universal welfare would be secured, when the ends of existence would be realized in every child of man. I believe that way is fixed, fixed perhaps in one way for you and in another for me, but equally fixed for both; and we have, in the literal sense of the word, to find out that way, as though it were something fixed by other hands than our own, with which we have to bring our thoughts and lives into harmony. This makes the ideal for each one of us, and the supreme business of our life is to discover it and faithfully follow it. It is no alien thing. It aims at a good beyond ourselves, namely, the good of all; but it is for ourselves, our true good is in the good of all. It appeals to us with no show of force or power, but only by its own sweet reasonableness; for it is indeed our own proper nature, and we are astray, wanderers from our true selves, till we have found it and become obedient to it. Does it hinder the freedom of the tree, that it grows according to its own appointed form ? Does it hinder the freedom of the bursting leaves of the spring-time, that they silently follow an inward necessity of comeliness and beauty ? No, their will is one with the law of their being. Alas ! man's is not; he does not know his true good, and when he does, he often prefers an inferior good. Yet man may have a glory that the leaves and the trees and all things in Nature cannot have : he may give himself the law that he shall follow ; he may, by his own choice, adopt it into, make it sovereign in, his life. Man can be the voluntary achiever of the purposes of Nature, and that the leaf on the tree is not; he can be at once free and the servant of a universal plan, while all things in Nature seem to be servants without freedom. Tennyson addresses what he conceives to be an ideal of perfect excellence, when he says, " Our wills are ours, we know not how; Our wills are ours, to make them Thine".