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Speculations on Morals


That great science which regards nature and the operations of
the human mind, is popularly divided into Morals and Metaphysics.
The latter relates to a just classification, and the assignment
of distinct names to its ideas; the former regards simply the
determination of that arrangement of them which produces the greatest
and most solid happiness. It is admitted that a virtuous or moral
action, is that action which, when considered in all its accessories
and consequences, is fitted to produce the highest pleasure to the
greatest number of sensitive beings. The laws according to which
all pleasure, since it cannot be equally felt by all sensitive
beings, ought to be distributed by a voluntary agent, are reserved
for a separate chapter.

The design of this little treatise is restricted to the development
of the elementary principles of morals. As far as regards that
purpose, metaphysical science will be treated merely so far as a
source of negative truth; whilst morality will be considered as a
science, respecting which we can arrive at positive conclusions.

The misguided imaginations of men have rendered the ascertaining of
what IS NOT TRUE, the principal direct service which metaphysical
science can bestow upon moral science. Moral science itself is the
doctrine of the voluntary actions of man, as a sentient and social
being. These actions depend on the thoughts in his mind. But there
is a mass of popular opinion, from which the most enlightened persons
are seldom wholly free, into the truth or falsehood of which it
is incumbent on us to inquire, before we can arrive at any firm
conclusions as to the conduct which we ought to pursue in the
regulation of our own minds, or towards our fellow beings; or before
we can ascertain the elementary laws, according to which these
thoughts, from which these actions flow, are originally combined.

The object of the forms according to which human society is administered,
is the happiness of the individuals composing the communities which
they regard, and these forms are perfect or imperfect in proportion
to the degree in which they promote this end.

This object is not merely the quantity of happiness enjoyed by
individuals as sensitive beings, but the mode in which it should
be distributed among them as social beings. It is not enough, if
such a coincidence can be conceived as possible, that one person
or class of persons should enjoy the highest happiness, whilst
another is suffering a disproportionate degree of misery. It is
necessary that the happiness produced by the common efforts, and
preserved by the common care, should be distributed according to
the just claims of each individual; if not, although the quantity
produced should be the same, the end of society would remain
unfulfilled. The object is in a compound proportion to the quantity
of happiness produced, and the correspondence of the mode in which
it is distributed, to the elementary feelings of man as a social

The disposition in an individual to promote this object is called
virtue; and the two constituent parts of virtue, benevolence and
justice, are correlative with these two great portions of the only
true object of all voluntary actions of a human being. Benevolence
is the desire to be the author of good, and justice the apprehension
of the manner in which good ought to be done.

Justice and benevolence result from the elementary laws of the
human mind.


SECT. 1. General View of the Nature and Objects of Virtue.--2. The
Origin and Basis of Virtue, as founded on the Elementary Principles
of Mind.--3. The Laws which flow from the nature of Mind regulating
the application of those principles to human actions;--4. Virtue,
a possible attribute of man.

We exist in the midst of a multitude of beings like ourselves, upon
whose happiness most of our actions exert some obvious and decisive

The regulation of this influence is the object of moral science.
We know that we are susceptible of receiving painful or pleasurable
impressions of greater or less intensity and duration. That is called
good which produces pleasure; that is called evil which produces
pain. These are general names, applicable to every class of causes,
from which an overbalance of pain or pleasure may result. But when
a human being is the active instrument of generating or diffusing
happiness, the principle through which it is most effectually
instrumental to that purpose, is called virtue. And benevolence,
or the desire to be the author of good, united with justice, or
an apprehension of the manner in which that good is to be done,
constitutes virtue.

But wherefore should a man be benevolent and just? The immediate
emotions of his nature, especially in its most inartificial state,
prompt him to inflict pain, and to arrogate dominion. He desires
to heap superfluities to his own store, although others perish with
famine. He is propelled to guard against the smallest invasion of
his own liberty, though he reduces others to a condition of the most
pitiless servitude. He is revengeful, proud and selfish. Wherefore
should he curb these propensities?

It is inquired, for what reason a human being should engage
in procuring the happiness, or refrain from producing the pain of
another? When a reason is required to prove the necessity of adopting
any system of conduct, what is it that the objector demands? He
requires proof of that system of conduct being such as will most
effectually promote the happiness of mankind. To demonstrate this,
is to render a moral reason. Such is the object of virtue.

A common sophism, which, like many others, depends on the abuse of
a metaphorical expression to a literal purpose, has produced much
of the confusion which has involved the theory of morals. It is said
that no person is bound to be just or kind, if, on his neglect, he
should fail to incur some penalty. Duty is obligation. There can
be no obligation without an obliger. Virtue is a law, to which it
is the will of the lawgiver that we should conform; which will we
should in no manner be bound to obey, unless some dreadful punishment
were attached to disobedience. This is the philosophy of slavery
and superstition.

In fact, no person can be BOUND or OBLIGED, without some power
preceding to bind and oblige. If I observe a man bound hand and
foot, I know that some one bound him. But if I observe him returning
self-satisfied from the performance of some action, by which he has
been the willing author of extensive benefit, I do not infer that
the anticipation of hellish agonies, or the hope of heavenly reward,
has constrained him to such an act.

. . . . . . .

It remains to be stated in what manner the sensations which
constitute the basis of virtue originate in the human mind; what
are the laws which it receives there; how far the principles of
mind allow it to be an attribute of a human being; and, lastly,
what is the probability of persuading mankind to adopt it as a
universal and systematic motive of conduct.


There is a class of emotions which we instinctively avoid. A human
being, such as is man considered in his origin, a child a month
old, has a very imperfect consciousness of the existence of other
natures resembling itself. All the energies of its being are
directed to the extinction of the pains with which it is perpetually
assailed. At length it discovers that it is surrounded by natures
susceptible of sensations similar to its own. It is very late before
children attain to this knowledge. If a child observes, without
emotion, its nurse or its mother suffering acute pain, it is
attributable rather to ignorance than insensibility. So soon as
the accents and gestures, significant of pain, are referred to the
feelings which they express, they awaken in the mind of the beholder
a desire that they should cease. Pain is thus apprehended to be evil
for its own sake, without any other necessary reference to the mind
by which its existence is perceived, than such as is indispensable
to its perception. The tendencies of our original sensations, indeed,
all have for their object the preservation of our individual being.
But these are passive and unconscious. In proportion as the mind
acquires an active power, the empire of these tendencies becomes
limited. Thus an infant, a savage, and a solitary beast, is selfish,
because its mind is incapable of receiving an accurate intimation
of the nature of pain as existing in beings resembling itself.
The inhabitant of a highly civilized community will more acutely
sympathize with the sufferings and enjoyments of others, than
the inhabitant of a society of a less degree of civilization. He
who shall have cultivated his intellectual powers by familiarity
with the highest specimens of poetry and philosophy, will usually
sympathize more than one engaged in the less refined functions
of manual labour. Every one has experience of the fact, that to
sympathize with the sufferings of another, is to enjoy a transitory
oblivion of his own.

The mind thus acquires, by exercise, a habit, as it were, of
perceiving and abhorring evil, however remote from the immediate
sphere of sensations with which that individual mind is conversant.
Imagination or mind employed in prophetically imaging forth its
objects, is that faculty of human nature on which every gradation
of its progress, nay, every, the minutest, change, depends. Pain
or pleasure, if subtly analysed, will be found to consist entirely
in prospect. The only distinction between the selfish man and the
virtuous man is, that the imagination of the former is confined within
a narrow limit, whilst that of the latter embraces a comprehensive
circumference. In this sense, wisdom and virtue may be said to be
inseparable, and criteria of each other. Selfishness is the offspring
of ignorance and mistake; it is the portion of unreflecting infancy,
and savage solitude, or of those whom toil or evil occupations
have blunted or rendered torpid; disinterested benevolence is the
product of a cultivated imagination, and has an intimate connexion
with all the arts which add ornament, or dignity, or power,
or stability to the social state of man. Virtue is thus entirely
a refinement of civilized life; a creation of the human mind; or,
rather, a combination which it has made, according to elementary
rules contained within itself, of the feelings suggested by the
relations established between man and man.

All the theories which have refined and exalted humanity, or those
which have been devised as alleviations of its mistakes and evils,
have been based upon the elementary emotions of disinterestedness,
which we feel to constitute the majesty of our nature. Patriotism,
as it existed in the ancient republics, was never, as has been
supposed, a calculation of personal advantages. When Mutius Scaevola
thrust his hand into the burning coals, and Regulus returned
to Carthage, and Epicharis sustained the rack silently, in the
torments of which she knew that she would speedily perish, rather
than betray the conspirators to the tyrant [Footnote: Tacitus.];
these illustrious persons certainly made a small estimate of their
private interest. If it be said that they sought posthumous fame;
instances are not wanting in history which prove that men have even
defied infamy for the sake of good. But there is a great error in
the world with respect to the selfishness of fame. It is certainly
possible that a person should seek distinction as a medium of
personal gratification. But the love of fame is frequently no more
than a desire that the feelings of others should confirm, illustrate,
and sympathize with, our own. In this respect it is allied with all
that draws us out of ourselves. It is the 'last infirmity of noble
minds'. Chivalry was likewise founded on the theory of self-sacrifice.
Love possesses so extraordinary a power over the human heart, only
because disinterestedness is united with the natural propensities.
These propensities themselves are comparatively impotent in cases
where the imagination of pleasure to be given, as well as to be
received, does not enter into the account. Let it not be objected
that patriotism, and chivalry, and sentimental love, have been the
fountains of enormous mischief. They are cited only to establish the
proposition that, according to the elementary principles of mind,
man is capable of desiring and pursuing good for its own sake.


The benevolent propensities are thus inherent in the human mind.
We are impelled to seek the happiness of others. We experience
a satisfaction in being the authors of that happiness. Everything
that lives is open to impressions or pleasure and pain. We are
led by our benevolent propensities to regard every human being
indifferently with whom we come in contact. They have preference
only with respect to those who offer themselves most obviously
to our notice. Human beings are indiscriminating and blind; they
will avoid inflicting pain, though that pain should be attended
with eventual benefit; they will seek to confer pleasure without
calculating the mischief that may result. They benefit one at the
expense of many.

There is a sentiment in the human mind that regulates benevolence
in its application as a principle of action. This is the sense of
justice. Justice, as well as benevolence, is an elementary law of
human nature. It is through this principle that men are impelled
to distribute any means of pleasure which benevolence may suggest
the communication of to others, in equal portions among an equal
number of applicants. If ten men are shipwrecked on a desert island,
they distribute whatever subsistence may remain to them, into equal
portions among themselves. If six of them conspire to deprive the
remaining four of their share, their conduct is termed unjust.

The existence of pain has been shown to be a circumstance which the
human mind regards with dissatisfaction, and of which it desires
the cessation. It is equally according to its nature to desire that
the advantages to be enjoyed by a limited number of persons should
be enjoyed equally by all. This proposition is supported by the
evidence of indisputable facts. Tell some ungarbled tale of a number
of persons being made the victims of the enjoyments of one, and he
who would appeal in favour of any system which might produce such
an evil to the primary emotions of our nature, would have nothing
to reply. Let two persons, equally strangers, make application for
some benefit in the possession of a third to bestow, and to which
he feels that they have an equal claim. They are both sensitive
beings; pleasure and pain affect them alike.


It is foreign to the general scope of this little treatise to encumber
a simple argument by controverting any of the trite objections of
habit or fanaticism. But there are two; the first, the basis of all
political mistake, and the second, the prolific cause and effect
of religious error, which it seems useful to refute.

First, it is inquired, 'Wherefore should a man be benevolent and
just?' The answer has been given in the preceding chapter.

If a man persists to inquire why he ought to promote the happiness
of mankind, he demands a mathematical or metaphysical reason for
a moral action. The absurdity of this scepticism is more apparent,
but not less real than the exacting a moral reason for a mathematical
or metaphysical fact. If any person should refuse to admit that all
the radii of a circle are of equal length, or that human actions
are necessarily determined by motives, until it could be proved that
these radii and these actions uniformly tended to the production of
the greatest general good, who would not wonder at the unreasonable
and capricious association of his ideas?

The writer of a philosophical treatise may, I imagine, at this
advanced era of human intellect, be held excused from entering into
a controversy with those reasoners, if such there are, who would
claim an exemption from its decrees in favour of any one among those
diversified systems of obscure opinion respecting morals, which,
under the name of religions, have in various ages and countries
prevailed among mankind. Besides that if, as these reasoners have
pretended, eternal torture or happiness will ensue as the consequence
of certain actions, we should be no nearer the possession of a
standard to determine what actions were right and wrong, even if this
pretended revelation, which is by no means the case, had furnished
us with a complete catalogue of them. The character of actions as
virtuous or vicious would by no means be determined alone by the
personal advantage or disadvantage of each moral agent individually
considered. Indeed, an action is often virtuous in proportion to
the greatness of the personal calamity which the author willingly
draws upon himself by daring to perform it. It is because an
action produces an overbalance of pleasure or pain to the greatest
number of sentient beings, and not merely because its consequences
are beneficial or injurious to the author of that action, that it
is good or evil. Nay, this latter consideration has a tendency to
pollute the purity of virtue, inasmuch as it consists in the motive
rather than in the consequences of an action. A person who should
labour for the happiness of mankind lest he should be tormented
eternally in Hell, would, with reference to that motive, possess as
little claim to the epithet of virtuous, as he who should torture,
imprison, and burn them alive, a more usual and natural consequence
of such principles, for the sake of the enjoyments of Heaven.

My neighbour, presuming on his strength, may direct me to perform
or to refrain from a particular action; indicating a certain arbitrary
penalty in the event of disobedience within power to inflict.
My action, if modified by his menaces, can no degree participate
in virtue. He has afforded me no criterion as to what is right or
wrong. A king, or an assembly of men, may publish a proclamation
affixing any penalty to any particular action, but that is not
immoral because such penalty is affixed. Nothing is more evident
than that the epithet of virtue is inapplicable to the refraining
from that action on account of the evil arbitrarily attached to it.
If the action is in itself beneficial, virtue would rather consist
in not refraining from it, but in firmly defying the personal
consequences attached to its performance.

Some usurper of supernatural energy might subdue the whole globe
to his power; he might possess new and unheard-of resources for
enduing his punishments with the most terrible attributes or pain.
The torments of his victims might be intense in their degree,
and protracted to an infinite duration. Still the 'will of the
lawgiver' would afford no surer criterion as to what actions were
right or wrong. It would only increase the possible virtue of those
who refuse to become the instruments of his tyranny.


The internal influence, derived from the constitution of the mind
from which they flow, produces that peculiar modification of actions,
which makes them intrinsically good or evil.

To attain an apprehension of the importance of this distinction,
let us visit, in imagination, the proceedings of some metropolis.
Consider the multitude of human beings who inhabit it, and survey,
in thought, the actions of the several classes into which they are
divided. Their obvious actions are apparently uniform: the stability
of human society seems to be maintained sufficiently by the uniformity
of the conduct of its members, both with regard to themselves,
and with regard to others. The labourer arises at a certain hour,
and applies himself to the task enjoined him. The functionaries
of government and law are regularly employed in their offices and
courts. The trader holds a train of conduct from which he never
deviates. The ministers of religion employ an accustomed language,
and maintain a decent and equable regard. The army is drawn forth,
the motions of every soldier are such as they were expected to be;
the general commands, and his words are echoed from troop to troop.
The domestic actions of men are, for the most part, undistinguishable
one from the other, at a superficial glance. The actions which
are classed under the general appellation of marriage, education,
friendship, &c., are perpetually going on, and to a superficial
glance, are similar one to the other.

But, if we would see the truth of things, they must be stripped of
this fallacious appearance of uniformity. In truth, no one action
has, when considered in its whole extent, any essential resemblance
with any other. Each individual, who composes the vast multitude
which we have been contemplating, has a peculiar frame of mind,
which, whilst the features of the great mass of his actions remain
uniform, impresses the minuter lineaments with its peculiar hues.
Thus, whilst his life, as a whole, is like the lives of other men,
in detail, it is most unlike; and the more subdivided the actions
become; that is, the more they enter into that class which have
a vital influence on the happiness of others and his own, so much
the more are they distinct from those of other men.

Those little, nameless, unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love,

as well as those deadly outrages which are inflicted by a look,
a word--or less--the very refraining from some faint and most
evanescent expression of countenance; these flow from a profounder
source than the series of our habitual conduct, which, it has
been already said, derives its origin from without. These are the
actions, and such as these, which make human life what it is, and
are the fountains of all the good and evil with which its entire
surface is so widely and impartially overspread; and though they are
called minute, they are called so in compliance with the blindness
of those who cannot estimate their importance. It is in the due
appreciating the general effects of their peculiarities, and in
cultivating the habit of acquiring decisive knowledge respecting
the tendencies arising out of them in particular cases, that the
most important part of moral science consists. The deepest abyss
of these vast and multitudinous caverns, it is necessary that we
should visit.

This is the difference between social and individual man. Not that
this distinction is to be considered definite, or characteristic
of one human being as compared with another; it denotes rather two
classes of agency, common in a degree to every human being. None
is exempt, indeed, from that species of influence which affects, as
it were, the surface of his being, and gives the specific outline
to his conduct. Almost all that is ostensible submits to that
legislature created by the general representation of the past
feelings of mankind--imperfect as it is from a variety of causes,
as it exists in the government, the religion, and domestic habits.
Those who do not nominally, yet actually, submit to the same power.
The external features of their conduct, indeed, can no more escape
it, than the clouds can escape from the stream of the wind; and
his opinion, which he often hopes he has dispassionately secured
from all contagion of prejudice and vulgarity, would be found, on
examination, to be the inevitable excrescence of the very usages
from which he vehemently dissents. Internally all is conducted
otherwise; the efficiency, the essence, the vitality of actions,
derives its colour from what is no ways contributed to from any
external source. Like the plant which while it derives the accident
of its size and shape from the soil in which it springs, and is
cankered, or distorted, or inflated, yet retains those qualities
which essentially divide it from all others; so that hemlock
continues to be poison, and the violet does not cease to emit its
odour in whatever soil it may grow.

We consider our own nature too superficially. We look on all that
in ourselves with which we can discover a resemblance in others;
and consider those resemblances as the materials of moral knowledge.
It is in the differences that it actually consists.

[written c.1815; pub. 1840]

Percy Bysshe Shelley

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