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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Moral Obligation

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Different opinions have been held as to the ground of moral obligation. Grotius, Balguy, and Dr. Samuel Clarke, place it in the eternal and necessary fitness of things. To this there are two objections. The first is, that it leaves the distraction between virtue and vice, in a great measure, arbitrary and indefinite, dependent upon our perception of fitness and unfitness, which in different individuals, will greatly differ. The second is, that when a fitness or unfitness is proved, it is no more than the discovery of a natural essential difference or congruity, which alone cannot constitute a moral obligation to choose what is fit, and to reject what is unfit. When we have proved a fitness in a certain course of action, we have not proved that it is obligatory. A second step is necessary before we can reach this conclusion. Cudworth, Butler, Price, and others, maintain, that virtue carries its own obligation in itself; that the understanding at once perceives a certain action to be right, and therefore it ought to be performed. Several objections lie to this notion:

1. It supposes the understandings of men to determine precisely in the same manner concerning all virtuous and vicious actions; which is contrary to fact.

2. It supposes a previous rule, by which the action is determined to be right; but if the revealed will of God is not to be taken into consideration, what common rule exists among men? There is evidently no such rule, and therefore no means of certainly determining what is right.

3. If a common standard were known among men, and if the understandings of men determined in the same manner as to the conformity, or otherwise, of an action to that standard; what renders it a matter of obligation that any one should perform it? The rule must be proved to be binding, or no ground of obligation is established.

An action is obligatory, say others, because it is agreeable to the moral sense. This is the theory of Lord Shaftesbury and Dr. Hutcheson. By moral sense appears to be meant an instinctive approbation of right, and abhorrence of wrong, prior to all reflection on their nature, or their consequences. If any thing else were understood by it, then the moral sense must be the same with conscience, which we know to vary with the judgment, and cannot therefore be the basis of moral obligation. If conscience be not meant, then the moral sense must be considered as instinctive: a notion, certainly, which is disproved by the whole moral history of man. It may, indeed, be conceded, that such is the constitution of the human soul, that when those distinctions between actions, which have been taught by religious tradition or direct revelation, are known in their nature, relations, and consequences, the calm and sober judgments of men will approve of them; and that especially when they are considered abstractedly, that is, as not affecting and controlling their own interests and passions immediately, virtue may command complacency, and vice provoke abhorrence: but that, independent of reflection on their nature or their consequences, there is an instinctive principle in man which abhors evil, and loves good, is contradicted by that variety of opinion and feeling on the vices and virtues, which obtains among all uninstructed nations. We applaud the forgiveness of an injury as magnanimous; a savage despises it as mean. We think it a duty to support and cherish aged parents; many nations, on the contrary, abandon them as useless, and throw them to the beasts of the field. Innumerable instances of this contrariety might be adduced, which are all contrary to the notion of instinctive sentiment. Instincts operate uniformly, but this assumed moral sense does not. Beside, if it be mere matter of feeling, independent of judgment, to love virtue, and abhor vice, the morality of the exercise of this principle is questionable; for it would be difficult to show, that there is any more morality, properly speaking, in the affections and disgusts of instinct than in those of the palate. If judgment, the knowledge and comparison of things, be included, then this principle supposes a uniform and universal individual revelation as to the nature of things to every man, or an intuitive faculty of determining their moral quality; both of which are too absurd to be maintained.

The only satisfactory conclusion on this subject, is that which refers moral obligation to the will of God. "Obligation," says Warburton, "necessarily implies an obliger, and the obliger must be different from, and not one and the same with, the obliged. Moral obligation, that is, the obligation of a free agent, farther implies a law, which enjoins and forbids; but a law is the imposition of an intelligent superior, who hath power to exact conformity thereto." This lawgiver is God; and whatever may be the reasons which have led him to enjoin this, and to prohibit that, it is plain that the obligation to obey lies not merely in the fitness and propriety of a creature obeying an infinitely wise and good Creator, (though such a fitness exists,) but in that obedience being enjoined. For, since the question respects the duty of a created being with reference to his Creator, nothing can be more conclusive than that the Creator has an absolute right to the obedience of his creatures; and that the creature is in duty obliged to obey him from whom it not only has received being, but by whom that being is constantly sustained. It has, indeed, been said, that even if it be admitted, that I am obliged to obey the will of God, the question is still open, "Why am I obliged to obey his will?" and that this brings us round to the former answer; because he can only will what is upon the whole best for his creatures. But this is confounding that which may be, and doubtless is, a rule to God in the commands which he issues, with that which really obliges the creature. Now, that which in truth obliges the creature is not the nature of the commands issued by God; but the relation in which the creature itself stands to God. If a creature can have no existence, nor any power or faculty independently of God, it can have no right to employ its faculties independently of him; and if it have no right to employ its faculties in an independent manner, the right to rule its conduct must rest with the Creator alone; and from this results the obligation of absolute and universal obedience.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Moral Obligation'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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