Chap. 6: When We Should Solely Have The Sense of Duty

Chap. 6: When the Sense of Duty Should be the Sole Principle of our Conduct; and in What Cases it Should Concur with Other Motives


3.1.113. Religion affords motives so strong to the practice of virtue

  • It guards us from the temptations of vice through powerful restraints.
  • Many have supposed that religious principles were the sole laudable motives of action.
  • They said that we should not:
    • reward from gratitude,
    • punish from resentment,
    • protect our children’s helplessness, and
    • afford support to the infirmities of our parents, from natural affection.
  • All affections for particular objects should be extinguished in our breast.
    • The love of the Deity is the desire of:
      • rendering ourselves agreeable to him, and
      • directing our conduct according to his will.
    • It should be the one great affection above all others.
  • We should not be:
    • grateful from gratitude,
    • charitable from humanity,
    • public-spirited from the love of our country, and
    • generous and just from the love of mankind.
  • Our conduct’s sole principle and motive should be a sense that God has commanded us to perform them.


I shall not examine this opinion now.

  • But I think that this opinion is inconsistent with any Christian sect.
  • Christianity’s first precept is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength.
    • Its second precept is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
    • We love ourselves surely for our own sakes, not because we are commanded to do so.
    • Christianity has no rule saying that the sense of duty should be our conduct’s sole principle.
    • Instead, Christianity says that the sense of duty should be the governing principle as directed by:
      • philosophy, and
      • common sense.
  • It may be a question in what cases:
    • our actions should arise chiefly from a sense of duty or from a regard to general rules,
    • some other sentiment should concur and have a principal influence.


3.1.114. This perhaps cannot be accurately answered.

  • It will depend on two circumstances:
    1. On the natural agreeableness or deformity of the sentiment which prompts us to any action, independent of all regard to general rules
    2. On the precision and exactness, or the looseness and inaccuracy, of the general rules themselves.
  1. 3.1.115. I. It will depend on:
    • the natural agreeableness or deformity of the affection itself
      • How far our actions:
        • arise from this affection or
        • entirely proceed from a regard to the general rule.


3.1.116. Our benevolent affections prompt us to all those graceful and admired actions.

  • Those actions should proceed as much from the passions themselves, as from any regard to the general rules of conduct.
  • A benefactor thinks himself ill requited, if his beneficiary repays him merely:
    • from a cold sense of duty, and
    • without any affection.
  • A husband is dissatisfied with the most obedient wife, when he imagines her conduct is animated only by her regard to what their relation requires.
  • Even if a son observes filial duty, but lacks that affectionate reverence, his parent may justly complain of his indifference.
    • Likewise, a son would not be satisfied with a parent who had no fatherly fondness even if his father performed all his duties.

Regarding all such benevolent and social affections, it is agreeable to see the sense of duty employed to:

  • restrain instead of enlivening them
  • hinder us from doing too much instead of prompting us to do what we should
  • It gives us pleasure to see:
    • a father obliged to check his own fondness
    • a friend obliged to set bounds to his natural generosity
    • a person who has received a benefit, to see him obliged to restrain his own sanguine gratitude


3.1.117. The contrary maxim happens with regard to the malevolent and unsocial passions.

  • We should reward from the gratitude and generosity of our own hearts, without:
    • any reluctance, or
    • being obliged to reflect how great the propriety of rewarding is.
  • We should always punish:
    • reluctantly, and
    • more from a sense of the propriety of punishing, than from any savage disposition to revenge.

Nothing is more graceful than the man who resents the greatest injuries, more from a sense that they deserve resentment, than from him feeling the furies of resentment.

  • Like a judge, he considers only the general rule which determines what vengeance is due for each offence.
  • In executing that rule, he feels less for what himself has suffered, than for what the offender is about to suffer.
  • He remembers mercy even if he is angry.
  • He interprets the rule in the most gentle and favourable way.
  • He allows all the alleviations which the most candid humanity could admit of, consistently with good sense.


3.1.118. The selfish passions hold a middle place between the social and unsocial affections too.

  • The pursuit of the objects of private interest in all ordinary cases should flow from a regard to the general rules than from any passion for the objects themselves.
    • During more important occasions, we would be awkward, insipid, and ungraceful, if the objects did not animate us with much passion.
  • The most vulgar tradesman would be degraded in the opinion of all his neighbours if he were:
    • anxious or
    • laying a plot to gain or save a shilling
  • Let his circumstances be ever so mean.
  • He should show no attention to any such small matters, for the sake of the things themselves.
    • His situation may require the most:
      • severe economy,
      • exact assiduity.
    • But each exertion of that economy and assiduity must proceed from the general rule.
      • This rule most rigourously prescribes such a tenor of conduct to him, not so much from a regard for that saving or gain.
    • His parsimony today must not arise from a desire of the three-pence he saves by it.
      • His attendance in his shop must not arise from a passion for the ten-pence he will acquire by it.
    • Both should proceed solely from a regard to the general rule.
      • This rule prescribes this plan of conduct to everyone in his way of life, with the most unrelenting severity.
  • This is the difference between the character of a miser and the character of a person of exact economy and assiduity.
    • The miser is anxious about small matters for their own sake.
    • The assiduous person attends to small matters only because it is part of his life’s scheme.


3.1.119. It is quite otherwise with regard to the more extraordinary and important objects of self-interest.

  • A person appears mean-spirited if he does not pursue these with some earnestness for their own sake.
  • We should despise a prince who was not anxious about conquering or defending a province.
  • We should have little respect for a private gentleman who did not exert himself to gain::
    • an estate or
    • even a considerable office, when he could acquire them without meanness or injustice
  • A parliament member who shows no keenness about his own election is abandoned by his friends as someone unworthy of their attachment.
  • Even a tradesman is thought of as a poor-spirited fellow among his neighbours if he does not exert himself to get an extraordinary job or some uncommon advantage.
  • This spirit and keenness is the difference between the man of enterprise and the man of dull regularity.

The objects of ambition are those great objects of self-interest which, when gained or lost, changes the person’s rank.

  • When it is kept within the bounds of prudence and justice, it is always admired.
  • It sometimes even has a certain irregular greatness which dazzles the imagination.
  • When it passes the limits of prudence and justice, it is unjust and extravagant.
  • Hence the general admiration for:
    • heroes and conquerors, and
    • statesmen with very daring and extensive projects, though devoid of justice
      • Examples are those of the Cardinals of Richlieu and Retz.

The objects of avarice and ambition differ only in their greatness.

  • A miser is as furious about a halfpenny as a man of ambition about the conquest of a kingdom.


  1. 3.1.120. II. How far our conduct should proceed from the general rules will depend partly on the accuracy of the general rules themselves.

3.1.121. The general rules of almost all the virtues are loose and inaccurate.

  • They have many exceptions.
  • They require so many modifications.
  • It is impossible to regulate our conduct entirely by a regard to them.
  • The common proverbial maxims of prudence are founded in universal experience.
    • They are perhaps the best general rules which can be given about it.
    • However, it would be the most absurd and ridiculous pedantry to affect a very strict and literal adherence to them.

The general rules determine what are the offices of prudence, charity, generosity, gratitude, and friendship.

  • Of these virtues, the rules are perhaps most precise with gratitude.
    • It has the fewest exceptions.
    • We should return equal or superior value to the services we receive as soon as we can.
      • This seems to be a pretty plain rule.
      • It had scarce any exceptions.
  • However, upon the most superficial examination, this rule will appear to be most loose and inaccurate.
    • It admits 10,000 exceptions.
      • If your benefactor attended you in your sickness, should you attend him in his?
      • Can you fulfil the obligation of gratitude by making a return of a different kind?
      • If you should attend him, how long should you attend him?
        • The same time which he attended you, or longer?
          • How much longer?
      • If your friend lent you money in your distress, should you to lend him money in his?
        • How much should you to lend him?
        • When should you to lend him?
          • Now, tomorrow, or next month?
          • For how long a time?

In all cases, no general rule can be laid down to precisely answer any of these questions.

  • There might be a difference between:
    • another person’s character and yours, and
    • another person’s circumstances and yours.
  • You might be perfectly grateful and justly refuse to lend him a halfpenny.
  • On the contrary, you might be willing to lend or even to give him 10 times the sum he lent you, yet you might be justly accused:
    • of the blackest ingratitude, and
    • of not having fulfilled 1/100th part of your obligation.
  • However, the duties of gratitude are perhaps the most sacred of all those prescribed to us by the beneficent virtues.
    • The general rules which determine those duties are the most accurate.
    • Those rules which ascertain the actions required by friendship, humanity, hospitality, generosity, are still more vague.


3.1.122. Justice is a virtue of which the general rules determine with the greatest exactness in all of its required actions.

  • The rules of justice are most accurate.
  • They admit no exceptions or modifications.
    • Except those which may be ascertained as accurately as the rules themselves.
    • Such modifications generally flow from the very same principles with them.
  • If I owe a man £10, justice requires that I precisely pay him £10:
    • at the agreed time, or
    • when he demands it.
  • The whole nature and circumstances of the action prescribed are all precisely fixed and determined:
    • what I should perform,
    • how much I should perform, and
    • when and where I should perform it.
  • It may be awkward and pedantic to adhere too strictly to the common rules of prudence or generosity.
    • There is no pedantry in sticking fast by the rules of justice.
    • On the contrary, the most sacred regard is due to them.

The actions required by justice are most properly performed when their chief motive is a reverential and religious regard to those general rules.

  • In the practice of the other virtues, our conduct should rather be directed by:
    • a certain idea of propriety, and
    • a certain taste for a particular tenor of conduct, than by any regard to a precise maxim or rule.
  • We should consider the end and foundation of the rule, more than the rule itself.
    • But it is otherwise with regard to justice.
  • The most commendable and dependable man is he who:
    • refines the rules, and
    • adheres most steadfastly to the general rules themselves.
  • The end of the rules of justice is to hinder us from hurting our neighbour.
    • It may frequently be a crime to violate them.
    • Even if we could pretend, with some pretext of reason, that this violation could not hurt.
  • A man often becomes a villain the moment he begins to deceive in this way, even in his own heart.
    • The moment he thinks of departing from the most staunch and positive adherence to what those inviolable precepts prescribe to him, he is no longer to be trusted.
    • No man can say what degree of guilt he may come to.
  • The thief imagines he does no evil when he steals from the rich.
    • He steals what he thinks:
      • they may easily lack
      • they may possibly never know was even stolen from them
  • The adulterer imagines he does no evil when he corrupts his friend’s wife, provided he:
    • covers his intrigue from his friend’s suspicion, and
    • does not disturb the family’s peace.
  • Once we begin to give way to such refinements, there is no enormity so gross which we may not be capable of.


3.1.123. The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar.

  • The rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition.
  • The rules of justice are precise, accurate, and indispensable.
    • The rules of grammar are loose, vague, and indeterminate.
      • They present us with a general idea of the perfection we should aim at, than any certain directions for acquiring it.
  • A man may learn to write grammatically by rule, with the most absolute infallibility.
    • He might be taught to act justly.
  • But there are no rules which will infallibly lead us to the elegance or sublimity in writing.
    • Though there are some which may help us to correct and ascertain the vague ideas of those perfections.
  • There are no rules which we can infallibly teach us to always act with prudence, just magnanimity, or proper beneficence.
    • Though there are some which may enable us to correct and ascertain our imperfect ideas of those virtues.


3.1.124. Sometimes, we may mistake the proper rules of conduct when we most seriously want to act to deserve approbation.

  • We are thus misled by that very principle which should direct us.
  • In this case, it is in vain to expect that mankind should entirely approve of our behaviour.
    • They cannot:
      • enter into that absurd idea of duty which influenced us, and
      • go along with any of the actions which follow from it.

However, there is still something respectable in the character and behaviour of one who is betrayed into vice by:

  • a wrong sense of duty or
  • an erroneous conscience.
  • No matter how fatally he was misled by it, he is still more the object of sympathy than of hatred or resentment, with the generous and humane.
    • They lament the weakness of human nature which exposes us to such unhappy delusions, even while we are most sincerely:
      • labouring after perfection
      • trying to act according to the best principle which can possibly direct us
  • False notions of religion are almost the only causes which can cause very gross perversion of our natural sentiments in this way.
    • Religion is alone capable of distorting our ideas of them considerably.
  • In all other cases, common sense is sufficient to direct us, if not to the most exquisite propriety of conduct, yet to something which is not very far from it;
  • Provided we want to do well, our behaviour will always be praise-worthy, on the whole.

Everyone agrees that the first rule of duty is to obey the Deity’s will.

  • But they differ widely on the commandments that that will imposes on us.
  • Therefore, the greatest mutual forbearance and toleration is due.
  • Society’s defence requires crimes to be punished from whatever motives.
    • Yet a good man will always punish them reluctantly when their motives are from false notions of religious duty.
      • He will never feel that indignation which he feels against other criminals.
      • He will rather regret and sometimes even admire their unfortunate firmness and magnanimity while he punishes them.

The tragedy of Mahomet was one of Voltaire’s finest.

  • It properly represented what should be our sentiments for crimes from such motives.
  • In that tragedy, a young man Seid and woman Palmira had a mutual fondness for one another.
    • They were most innocent and virtuous.
    • They are instigated to commit a horrid murder by the strongest motives of a false religion.
      • It shocks all the principles of human nature.
    • A venerable old man expressed the most tender affection for both of them.
      • He was the avowed enemy of their religion.
      • They both conceived the highest reverence and esteem for him.
      • In reality, he was their father who they did not know about.
      • He is pointed out to them as a sacrifice which God expressly required at their hands.
      • They are commanded to kill him.
      • While executing this crime, they are tortured with all the agonies arising from the struggle between:
        • the idea of the indispensableness of religious duty on the one side, and
        • compassion, gratitude, reverence for the aged, and love for the humanity and virtue of the person they are going to destroy, on the other
      • This exhibits one of the most interesting and perhaps the most instructive spectacle ever introduced on any theatre.
        • However, the sense of duty prevails at last over all the amiable weaknesses of human nature.
        • They execute the crime imposed on them.
        • But immediately they discover:
          • their error and
          • the fraud which deceived them
        • They are distracted with horror, remorse, and resentment.
  • Our sentiments for Seid and Palmira should be our feelings for anyone misled by religion in this way, when we are sure that it is really religion which misleads him and not the pretence of it.
    • Its pretence is made as a cover to some of the worst human passions.


3.1.125. A person may act wrongly by following a wrong sense of duty.

  • Nature may sometimes prevail and lead him to act right in opposing it.
  • In this case, we cannot be displeased to see that motive prevail, which we think should prevail, though the person himself is so weak as to think otherwise.
  • However, his conduct is the effect of weakness and not of principle.
    • We are far from bestowing approbation on it.

A bigoted Roman Catholic was so overcome by compassion during the massacre of St. Bartholomew.

  • He saved some unhappy Protestants whom he thought it his duty to destroy.
  • He would not seem entitled to that high applause which we should have bestowed, had he exerted the same generosity with complete self-approbation.
  • We might be pleased with his humanity.
  • But we should still regard him with a pity inconsistent with the admiration due to perfect virtue.

It is the same case with all the other passions.

  • We do not dislike to see them exert themselves properly, even when a false notion of duty directs the person to restrain them.
    • A very devout Quaker is struck on one cheek.
      • Instead of turning up the other cheek, he forgets his literal interpretation of our Saviour’s precept.
      • He bestows some good discipline on the brute that insulted him.
      • This would be agreeable to us.
    • We should:
      • laugh and be diverted with his spirit, and
      • like him more for it.
    • But we should not regard him with the respect due to one who acted properly from a just sense of what was proper, on a like occasion.
  • No action can be called virtuous if it is not accompanied with the sentiment of self-approbation.



Notes for this chapter

6. See Voltaire.

  • Vous y grillez sage et docte Platon,
    Divin Homere, eloquent Ciceron, etc.

7. See Thomson’s Seasons, Winter:

‘Ah! little think the gay licentious proud, etc.

See also Pascal.
8. See Robertson’s Charles V. vol. ii, pp. 14 and 15. first edition.

Words: 3,275

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