And I should say that man's glory is that he has a will of his own, and yet can make that will conform with the requirements of a perfect law. That law stretches beyond all that is written down in human statutes; it marks out for us a course of action, a mode of life, and an order of society that would result in the accomplishment of a perfect good. I but repeat in substance the language of a distinguished political economist, M. de Laveleye, who does not forget, as so many do, the ideal aims of his science, when I say that at every moment of history and in every society, conformably to the nature of mankind, there is a social and political organization which answers best to the rational requirements of man, and is most favorable to his development. This order constitutes the empire of right. Science is called in to discover it, and legislation to sanction it. Every law which is conformable to this order is good and just; every law which is opposed to it is bad and iniquitous. This order is by no means always the existing one ; else why should we desire change in the latter ? But it is the order which ought to exist for the greatest good of the human race.1 An absolute morality is only the law of a social and political order in which the greatest good of the human race would be secured; and they, it seems to me, would reach the loftiest moral height who, without waiting for legislation to sanction it or for other human beings to set them the example, should, so far as possible, voluntarily make it the rule of their lives now.
But if there are moral principles which do not depend on our thought for their rightness, which in accordance with our varying conditions and capacities give to each one of us the true ideal of life, and which by no means conflict with our freedom, since only by our freedom can they become realized in us, if such principles exist, what are they ? I believe they may be stated as Justice and Love. It is sometimes said that circumstances alter duties. Edmund Burke said that the situation of a man was the preceptor of his duty. But are there any circumstances which would justify a man in practising injustice ? Is there any situation in which it is permitted to us to hate ? I believe not. I believe these laws are of unconditional, universal validity. All particular duties change ; they are but the application of these general laws to particular, varying circumstances. Justice may require us to reward one man and to punish another : to treat them equally might even be injustice. Justice may lead us to make war, or to maintain peace; but to make war recklessly, or to maintain peace at any cost, would be contrary to justice. Justice may lead us to stay by our families and support them, or to leave them and enlist for the public defence; but if we should leave our families for selfish rather than unselfish reasons, or to gratify passion and lust, the same principle that before justified us would now absolutely condemn us. The admission that varying circumstances change the character of our obligations is not in the slightest degree inconsistent with the recognition that there is an absolute obligation for each particular set of circumstances. The admission that duty may change with circumstances is, of course, liable to perversion, and the wicked man may take it to mean that he may do whatever it pleases him to do; but the pure-minded man knows that duty itself still remains, and has only changed its form. Equally may love lead us to varying and opposite actions. Out of love we may give alms to a poor man, or withhold them, in either case acting not according to our caprice, but for the best good of the man himself. Love may lead us to speak the truth, or to withhold it; to keep a promise, or to break one; to strive to preserve our health, or freely to sacrifice it. There is nothing that is absolute that is, fixed and unvarying about these particular maxims. The only absolute rule is that of love itself; one may always act under its inspiration. You may rebuke your child in love ; a man may thwart his friends in love. It is one of the touches of humanity, even in the Homeric poems, that now and then two brave foes exchange presents at the conclusion of a combat to prove that not out of hate but for glory they have fought.1 Indeed, if there is any act that can be done only in pure hatred, it stands self-condemned. We may hate wickedness, but must always remember that a wicked man is more than his wickedness. We may not hate even a mortal enemy ; though we take his life in self-defence, we are not allowed to take pleasure in doing so.
1 Primitive Property, pp. 346, 353.
Because, then, there is no one particular act that is always right, or no one particular maxim like " Preserve your health," or " Keep your promises " which must always be obeyed, it does not follow that there is nothing absolute whatever about morality. The absoluteness of morality is in its supreme principles ; they need never be transgressed, they dare never be disobeyed. If I do not follow any one particular maxim of duty, it must never be because I substitute some interest or caprice of my own, but because I seek to obey some broader maxim, some higher, more perfect expression of the principle itself. And if an air of uncertainty seems thus to be left about specific duties, let me suggest a rule that, I think, will give us practical guidance in a special emergency : when we find ourselves doubting about any particular duty, let us ask ourselves searchingly the question, " Am I doubting because I secretly desire to do differently, or because a really higher duty seems to command me ? "
It is a sign of the wonderful range of the human mind, that it is able, so to speak, to transcend itself, and to discover laws that would be just as true had they not been discovered, laws that are older than the mind, and will go on, in their unceasing operation, after the mind has, to all appearance, ceased to be. Such are all the laws of Nature. It is certainly good at times to escape out of ourselves, these fleeting, so quickly vanishing selves, and feel the pulses and recognize the laws of this unceasing and eternal movement in the world around us. Matthew Arnold suggests as a staying, consoling thought for the dying man, that, though he is to perish, the world does not perish with him, but eternally goes on.1 I would, if I might, suggest the thought of other laws and of another order of things than this physical one with which we are surrounded. I would suggest the thought of deathless principles to the dying man. I would have him think that justice does not die because he dies ; that love does not cease to urge its claims because his own heart's love seems about to cease. I would have him think that though justice and love had failed in all the past to get an entrance into human hearts, they ought to have had an entrance, for they belong there, their meaning was there, and that they are the unalterable pattern after which the life of men must be shaped in the future. These laws, also, are stable ; they seem to give something of their own firmness to those who contemplate them; they are witness that within, as well as without, man is connected with an eternal order of things.
1 Iliad, vii. 300 ff.
1 Poems, "A Wish".