Chap. 4: The Nature of Self-deceit and the Origin and Use of General Rules

Chap. 4: The Nature of Self-deceit and the Origin and Use of General Rules

3.1.88. The impartial spectator does not always need to be far to pervert the righteousness of our own judgments on our own conduct’s propriety.

  • When he is near, the violence and injustice of our own selfish passions are sometimes enough to induce the man within the breast to make a report very different from what our real circumstances can authorise.

3.1.89. There are two occasions when we examine our own conduct and try to view it as how the impartial spectator would view it:

  1. When we are about to act
  2. After we have acted.
  • Our views tend to be very partial in both cases.
  • But they tend to be most partial when they must be impartial.

3.1.90. Before we perform an act, the passion’s eagerness will seldom allow us to consider what we are doing.

  • The violent emotions which agitate us, discolour our views even when we are trying to:
    • place ourselves in another’s situation, and
    • regard the objects that interest us as how they will naturally appear to him.
  • The fury of our own passions constantly calls us back to our own place, where everything appears magnified and misrepresented by self-love.
  • We can obtain only instantaneous glimpses of how those objects would appear to others.
    • These glimpses:
      • vanish in a moment, and
      • are not altogether just, even while they last.
    • We cannot even for that moment:
      • divest ourselves entirely of the heat and keenness inspired by our peculiar situation, and
      • consider what we are about to do with the complete impartiality of an equitable judge.
  • As father Malebranche says, the passions all:
    • justify themselves, and
    • seem reasonable and proportioned to their objects, as long as we continue to feel them.

3.1.91. We can enter more coolly into the indifferent spectator’s sentiments:

  • when the action is over and
  • when the passions which prompted it have subsided.

What interested us before is almost now as indifferent to us as it always was to him.

  • We can now examine our own conduct with his candour and impartiality.
  • The man of today is no longer agitated by the same passions which distracted the man of yesterday.
  • When the burst of emotion is fairly over, we can identify ourselves with the ideal man within the breast.
    • We can view our own situation through our own eyes.
    • We can also view our own conduct with the severe eyes of the most impartial spectator.
  • But our judgments now:
    • are often of little importance compared to what they were before, and
    • can frequently produce only vain regret and unavailing repentance.
      • It does not always secure us from similar errors in the future.

However, it is seldom that they are quite candid even in this case.

  • Our opinion on our own character depends entirely on our judgments on our past conduct.
  • It is so disagreeable to think ill of ourselves.
    • We often purposely turn away our view from those circumstances which might render that judgment unfavourable.
  • They say that a bold surgeon has hands which do not tremble when he performs an operation on himself.
    • A man is often equally bold if he does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct.

Rather than see our own behaviour so disagreeably, we often foolishly and weakly try to exasperate those unjust passions which misled us.

  • By artifice, we try to:
    • awaken our old hatreds, and
    • irritate afresh our almost forgotten resentments.
  • We even exert ourselves for this miserable purpose.
    • We thus persevere in injustice, merely:
      • because we were once unjust, and
      • because we are ashamed and afraid to see that we were so.

3.1.92. Mankind’s views on the propriety of their own conduct are so partial, both at the time of action and after it.

  • It is so difficult for them to view it as how any indifferent spectator would consider it.
  • Man’s moral sense is a power of perception which distinguishes the beauty or deformity of passions and affections.
    • If men judged their own conduct more immediately by this moral sense, then it would more accurately judge on them, than on those of other men.
      • The moral sense of other men have a more distant prospect.


3.1.93. Half the disorders of human life is caused by this self-deceit, this fatal weakness of mankind.

  • If we saw ourselves as how others see us, or in which they would see us if they knew all, a reform would generally be unavoidable.
  • We could not otherwise endure the sight.

3.1.94. However, Nature has not left this important weakness without a remedy.

  • She has not abandoned us entirely to the delusions of self-love.
  • Our continual observations on the conduct of others, insensibly lead us to form to ourselves general rules on what is fit and proper to be done or avoided.
    • Some of their actions shock all our natural sentiments.
    • We hear everybody detest against them.
    • This further confirms and even exasperates our natural sense of their deformity.
    • It satisfies us that we view them in the proper light, when we see other people view them in the same light.
    • We resolve never to be guilty of the like, nor ever to render ourselves the objects of universal disapprobation in this way.
  • We thus naturally lay down a general rule to ourselves that we should avoid all actions which render us the objects of all those dreaded sentiments.
    • These make us odious, contemptible, or punishable.
  • On the contrary, other actions call forth our approbation.
    • We hear everybody around us express the same favourable opinion on them.
    • Everybody is eager to honour and reward them.
    • They excite all of mankind’s love, gratitude, and admiration.
      • By nature, we have the strongest desire for those sentiments.
    • We become ambitious of performing the like.
  • We naturally lay down another rule to ourselves, that we should carefully seek every opportunity of acting in this way.

3.1.95. Thus, the general rules of morality are formed.

  • They are ultimately founded on the experience of what, in particular instances, our moral faculties, our natural sense of merit and propriety, approve or disapprove of.
  • We do not originally approve or condemn particular actions.
    • Because upon examination, they appear to be agreeable or inconsistent with a certain general rule.

On the contrary, the general rule is formed when we find that certain kinds of actions  are approved or disapproved of.

  • A person is murdered, because of avarice, envy, or unjust resentment, by someone whom he loved and trusts.
    • The dying man complains more of his false friend’s perfidy and ingratitude, than of the murder.
    • One of the most sacred rules of conduct prohibited the taking away of an innocent life.
    • A man who sees this murder could have no occasion to reflect that this was a plain violation of that rule, and consequently a very blamable action.
    • His detestation of this crime would arise instantaneously and before he has formed to himself any such general rule.
  • On the contrary, the general rule which he might form afterwards would be founded on the detestation he felt in his own breast at the thought of this and other actions of the same kind.

3.1.96. When we read in history or romance, we admire the account of actions of generosity or condemn the actions of baseness.

  • Neither of them arise from reflecting that there are certain general rules which declare:
    • all generous actions admirable, and
    • all base actions contemptible.
  • On the contrary, those general rules are all formed from our experience on the effects naturally produced on us by different kinds of actions.

3.1.97. An amiable action, a respectable action, an horrid action, are actions which naturally excite the observer’s love, respect, or horror for its doer.

  • General rules determine what actions are or are not the objects of each of those sentiments.
    • These rules can only be formed by observing what actions actually excite them.

3.1.98. These general rules are formed and universally acknowledged and established by the concurring sentiments of mankind.

  • We frequently appeal to them as to the standards of judgment, in debating on the praise or blame due to complicated and dubious actions.
  • They are commonly cited as the ultimate foundations of what is just and unjust.
  • This circumstance seems to have misled several very eminent authors, to draw up their systems as if they had supposed that mankind’s original judgments on right and wrong, were formed like the decisions of a court of justice.
    • It considers:
      1. The general rule
      2. Then, whether the action under consideration fell properly within its comprehension.

3.1.99. When those general rules of conduct have been fixed in our mind by habitual reflection, they are very useful in correcting the misrepresentations of self-love on what is proper to be done.

  • If a very resentful man listened to the dictates of self-love, he might regard his enemy’s death as but a small compensation for the wrong he has received, even if it were just a very slight provocation.
    • But his observations on the conduct of others, have taught him how horrible all such sanguinary revenges appear, unless:
      • his education has been very singular, and
      • he has laid it down to himself as an inviolable rule, to always abstain from revenge.
        • This rule preserves its authority with him.
        • It renders him incapable of such a revenge.
    • Yet the original fury of his own temper might have made him determine the action to be:
      • quite just and proper, and
      • what every impartial spectator would approve of.
    • But that reverence for the rule which past experience has impressed upon him:
      • checks the impetuosity of his passion, and
      • helps him to correct the too partial views suggested by self-love.
  • If he allows himself to be controlled by resentment as to violate this rule, he cannot throw off the awe and respect for this rule.
    • When resentment is at its highest, he hesitates and trembles at the thought of what he is about to do.
    • He is secretly conscious to himself that he is breaking through those measures of conduct:
      • which he had resolved never to infringe during his cool hours,
      • which he had never seen infringed by others without the highest disapprobation, and
      • of which the infringement must soon render him the object of the same disagreeable sentiments.
  • Before he can take the last fatal resolution, he is tormented with all the agonies of doubt and uncertainty.
    • He is terrified at the thought of violating so sacred a rule.
    • At the same time, he is urged and goaded on by the fury of his desires to violate it.
  • He changes his purpose every moment.
    • Sometimes he resolves:
      • to adhere to his principle, and
      • not to indulge a passion which may corrupt his life with shame and repentance.
  • He is calmed for a moment from the prospect of that peace and security which he will enjoy when he decides avoid the contrary conduct.
  • But immediately the passion rouses anew.
    • With fresh fury, it drives him on to commit what he before resolved to abstain from.
  • Wearied and distracted with those continual irresolutions, from a sort of despair, he makes the last fatal and irrecoverable step.
    • He throws himself over a precipice, with that terror and amazement as one who is fleeing from an enemy.
    • He meets a more certain destruction than from anything that pursues him from behind.
  • Such are his sentiments even at the time of acting.
    • Though he is then less sensible of the impropriety of his own conduct than afterwards, when his passion being gratified and palled.
    • He begins to view what he has done as how others would see it.
    • He actually feels, what he had only foreseen very imperfectly before, the stings of remorse and repentance begin to agitate and torment him.

Words: 1,967

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