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An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

The happiness and prosperity of mankind, arising from the social virtue of benevolence
and its subdivisions, may be compared to a wall, built by many hands, which still rises by
each stone that is heaped upon it, and receives increase proportional to the diligence and
care of each workman. The same happiness, raised by the social virtue of justice and its
subdivisions, may be compared to the building of a vault, where each individual stone
would, of itself, fall to the ground; nor is the whole fabric supported but by the mutual
assistance and combination of its corresponding parts.
All the laws of nature, which regulate property, as well as all civil laws, are general, and
regard alone some essential circumstances of the case, without taking into consideration
the characters, situations, and connexions of the person concerned, or any particular
consequences which may result from the determination of these laws in any particular
case which offers. They deprive, without scruple, a beneficent man of all his possessions,
if acquired by mistake, without a good title; in order to bestow them on a selfish miser,
who has already heaped up immense stores of superfluous riches. Public utility requires
that property should be regulated by general inflexible rules; and though such rules are
adopted as best serve the same end of public utility, it is impossible for them to prevent
all particular hardships, or make beneficial consequences result from every individual
case. It is sufficient, if the whole plan or scheme be necessary to the support of civil
society, and if the balance of good, in the main, do thereby preponderate much above that
of evil. Even the general laws of the universe, though planned by infinite wisdom, cannot
exclude all evil or inconvenience in every particular operation.
It has been asserted by some, that justice arises from Human Conventions, and proceeds
from the voluntary choice, consent, or combination of mankind. If by CONVENTION be
here meant a PROMISE (which is the most usual sense of the word) nothing can be more
absurd than this position. The observance of promises is itself one of the most
considerable parts of justice, and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we
have given our word to keep it. But if by convention be meant a sense of common
interest, which sense each man feels in his own breast, which he remarks in his fellows,
and which carries him, in concurrence with others, into a general plan or system of
actions, which tends to public utility; it must be owned, that, in this sense, justice arises
from human conventions. For if it be allowed (what is, indeed, evident) that the particular
consequences of a particular act of justice may be hurtful to the public as well as to
individuals; it follows that every man, in embracing that virtue, must have an eye to the
whole plan or system, and must expect the concurrence of his fellows in the same
conduct and behaviour. Did all his views terminate in the consequences of each act of his
own, his benevolence and humanity, as well as his self-love, might often prescribe to him
measures of conduct very different from those which are agreeable to the strict rules of
right and justice.