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A Treatise of Human Nature

BOOK III: Of Morals
PART III.1: Of Virtue And Vice In General
SECT. I MORAL DISTINCTIONS NOT DERIVed FROM REASON
There is an inconvenience which attends all abstruse reasoning. that it may silence,
without convincing an antagonist, and requires the same intense study to make us
sensible of its force, that was at first requisite for its invention. When we leave our closet,
and engage in the common affairs of life, its conclusions seem to vanish, like the
phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and it is difficult for us to retain
even that conviction, which we had attained with difficulty. This is still more
conspicuous in a long chain of reasoning, where we must preserve to the end the evidence
of the first propositions, and where we often lose sight of ail the most received maxims,
either of philosophy or common life. I am not, however, without hopes, that the present
system of philosophy will acquire new force as it advances; and that our reasonings
concerning morals will corroborate whatever has been said concerning the
UNDERSTANDING and the PASSIONS. Morality is a subject that interests us above all
others: We fancy the peace of society to be at stake in every decision concerning it; and it
is evident, that this concern must make our speculations appear more real and solid, than
where the subject is, in a great measure, indifferent to us. What affects us, we conclude
can never be a chimera; and as our passion is engaged on the one side or the other, we
naturally think that the question lies within human comprehension; which, in other cases
of this nature, we are apt to entertain some doubt of. Without this advantage I never
should have ventured upon a third volume of such abstruse philosophy, in an age,
wherein the greatest part of men seem agreed to convert reading into an amusement, and
to reject every thing that requires any considerable degree of attention to be
comprehended.
It has been observed, that nothing is ever present to the mind but its perceptions; and that
all the actions of seeing, hearing, judging, loving, hating, and thinking, fall under this
denomination. The mind can never exert itself in any action, which we may not
comprehend under the term of perception; and consequently that term is no less
applicable to those judgments, by which we distinguish moral good and evil, than to
every other operation of the mind. To approve of one character, to condemn another, are
only so many different perceptions.
Now as perceptions resolve themselves into two kinds, viz. impressions and ideas, this
distinction gives rise to a question, with which we shall open up our present enquiry
concerning morals. WHETHER IT IS BY MEANS OF OUR IDEAS OR IMPRESSIONS
WE DISTINGUISH BETWIXT VICE AND VIRTUE, AND PRONOUNCE AN
ACTION BLAMEABLE OR PRAISEWORTHY? This will immediately cut off all loose
discourses and declamations, and reduce us to something precise and exact on the present
subject.
 
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