An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals HTML version

IV. Of Political Society
Had every man sufficient SAGACITY to perceive, at all times, the strong interest which
binds him to the observance of justice and equity, and STRENGTH OF MIND sufficient
to persevere in a steady adherence to a general and a distant interest, in opposition to the
allurements of present pleasure and advantage; there had never, in that case, been any
such thing as government or political society, but each man, following his natural liberty,
had lived in entire peace and harmony with all others. What need of positive law where
natural justice is, of itself, a sufficient restraint? Why create magistrates, where there
never arises any disorder or iniquity? Why abridge our native freedom, when, in every
instance, the utmost exertion of it is found innocent and beneficial? It is evident, that, if
government were totally useless, it never could have place, and that the sole foundation
of the duty of allegiance is the ADVANTAGE, which it procures to society, by
preserving peace and order among mankind.
When a number of political societies are erected, and maintain a great intercourse
together, a new set of rules are immediately discovered to be USEFUL in that particular
situation; and accordingly take place under the title of Laws of Nations. Of this kind are,
the sacredness of the person of ambassadors, abstaining from poisoned arms, quarter in
war, with others of that kind, which are plainly calculated for the ADVANTAGE of
states and kingdoms in their intercourse with each other.
The rules of justice, such as prevail among individuals, are not entirely suspended among
political societies. All princes pretend a regard to the rights of other princes; and some,
no doubt, without hypocrisy. Alliances and treaties are every day made between
independent states, which would only be so much waste of parchment, if they were not
found by experience to have SOME influence and authority. But here is the difference
between kingdoms and individuals. Human nature cannot by any means subsist, without
the association of individuals; and that association never could have place, were no
regard paid to the laws of equity and justice. Disorder, confusion, the war of all against
all, are the necessary consequences of such a licentious conduct. But nations can subsist
without intercourse. They may even subsist, in some degree, under a general war. The
observance of justice, though useful among them, is not guarded by so strong a necessity
as among individuals; and the moral obligation holds proportion with the USEFULNESS.
All politicians will allow, and most philosophers, that reasons of state may, in particular
emergencies, dispense with the rules of justice, and invalidate any treaty or alliance,
where the strict observance of it would be prejudicial, in a considerable degree, to either
of the contracting parties. But nothing less than the most extreme necessity, it is
confessed, can justify individuals in a breach of promise, or an invasion of the properties
of others.
In a confederated commonwealth, such as the Achaean republic of old, or the Swiss
Cantons and United Provinces in modern times; as the league has here a peculiar
UTILITY, the conditions of union have a peculiar sacredness and authority, and a