A Treatise of Human Nature HTML version

PART III.2: Of Justice And Injustice
I have already hinted, that our sense of every kind of virtue is not natural; but that there
are some virtues, that produce pleasure and approbation by means of an artifice or
contrivance, which arises from the circumstances and necessity of mankind. Of this kind
I assert justice to be; and shall endeavour to defend this opinion by a short, and, I hope,
convincing argument, before I examine the nature of the artifice, from which the sense of
that virtue is derived.
It is evident, that when we praise any actions, we regard only the motives that produced
them, and consider the actions as signs or indications of certain principles in the mind and
temper. The external performance has no merit. We must look within to find the moral
quality. This we cannot do directly; and therefore fix our attention on actions, as on
external signs. But these actions are still considered as signs; and the ultimate object of
our praise and approbation is the motive, that produced them.
After the same manner, when we require any action, or blame a person for not
performing it, we always suppose, that one in that situation should be influenced by the
proper motive of that action, and we esteem it vicious in him to be regardless of it. If we
find, upon enquiry, that the virtuous motive was still powerful over his breast, though
checked in its operation by some circumstances unknown to us, we retract our blame, and
have the same esteem for him, as if he had actually performed the action, which we
require of him.
It appears, therefore, that all virtuous actions derive their merit only from virtuous
motives, and are considered merely as signs of those motives. From this principle I
conclude, that the first virtuous motive, which bestows a merit on any action, can never
be a regard to the virtue of that action. but must be some other natural motive or
principle. To suppose, that the mere regard to the virtue of the action. may be the first
motive, which produced the action, and rendered it virtuous, is to reason in a circle.
Before we can have such a regard, the action must be really virtuous; and this virtue must
be derived from some virtuous motive: And consequently the virtuous motive must be
different from the regard to the virtue of the action. A virtuous motive is requisite to
render an action virtuous. An action must be virtuous, before we can have a regard to its
virtue. Some virtuous motive, therefore, must be antecedent to that regard.
Nor is this merely a metaphysical subtilty; but enters into all our reasonings in common
life, though perhaps we may not be able to place it in such distinct philosophical terms.
We blame a father for neglecting his child. Why? because it shews a want of natural
affection, which is the duty of every parent. Were not natural affection a duty, the care of
children coued not be a duty; and it were impossible we coued have the duty in our eye in