In the discussion of this question I must,

I. Remind you of what constitutes disobedience to moral law.

II. Show what is implied in it.

I. What constitutes disobedience to moral law?

1. We have seen that disobedience to moral law consists always in selfishness.

2. Selfishness consists in the ultimate choice of our own gratification.

3. An ultimate choice is the choice of an end, or the choice of something for its own sake or for its own intrinsic value.

4. The choice of our own gratification as an ultimate end, is the preference of our own gratification, not merely because gratification is a good, but because and upon condition that it is our own gratification or a good to self.

5. Selfishness chooses and cares for good only upon condition that it belongs to self. It is not the gratification of being in general, but self gratification upon which selfishness terminates. It is a good because it belongs to self or is chosen upon that condition. But when it is affirmed that selfishness is sin and the whole of sin, we are in danger of misconceiving the vast import of the word and of taking a very narrow and superficial and inadequate view of the subject. It is therefore indispensable to raise and push the inquiry, What is implied in selfishness? What are its characteristics and essential elements? What modifications or attributes does it develop and manifest under the various circumstances in which in the providence of God it is placed? It consists in the committal of the will to the gratification of desire. The Apostle calls it "fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind." What must be implied in the state of mind which consists in the committal of the whole being to the gratification of self as an end? What must be the effect upon the desires themselves to be thus indulged? What must be the effect upon the intellect to have its high demands trampled under foot? What must be the developments of it in the outward life? What must be the effect upon the temper and spirit to have self-indulgence the law of the soul? This leads to the investigation of the point before us namely,

II. What is implied in disobedience to moral law?

The inquiry, it will be seen, naturally divides itself into two branches. The first respects the moral character of selfishness. The second respects the attributes of selfishness. We will attend to these two inquiries in their order, and,

1. What is implied in the fact that selfishness is a breach of moral law? Why is selfishness blame-worthy? Why is not a spirit of self-seeking in mere animals or brute beasts as much a breach of moral law as is the same spirit in man? If this spirit of self-seeking in man is sin, what is implied in this fact? In other words, what conditions are necessary to render a spirit of self-seeking a breach of moral law? These conditions whatever they are, must be implied in disobedience to moral law. This brings us to the direct consideration of the things that belong to the first branch of our inquiry.

(1.) Disobedience to moral law implies the possession of the powers of moral agency. These have been so often enumerated as to render any enlargement upon this point unnecessary, except to say that it is impossible for any but a moral agent to violate moral law. Mere animals may do that which the moral law prohibits in moral agents. But the moral law does not legislate over them; therefore those things in them are not sin, nor a violation of moral law.

(2.) It implies knowledge of the end which a moral agent is bound to choose. We have seen that the moral law requires love and that this love is benevolence, and that benevolence is the disinterested and impartial choice of the highest good of God and of being in general as an end. Now it follows that this end must be apprehended before we can possibly choose it. Therefore obligation to choose it implies the perception or knowledge of it. Disobedience to moral law, then, implies the development in the reason of the idea of the good or valuable to being. A being therefore who has not reason, or the ideas of whose reason on moral subjects are not at all developed, can not violate the law of God; for over such the moral law does not extend its claims.

(3.) It implies the development of the correlative of the idea of the good or the valuable, to wit, the idea of moral obligation to will or choose it for the sake of its intrinsic value. When the idea of the valuable to being is once developed, the mind is so constituted that it can not but instantly or simultaneously affirm its obligation to will it as an end and every good according to its perceived relative value.

(4.) Disobedience to moral law implies the development of the correlative of the idea of moral obligation, to wit, the idea of right and wrong. That it is right to will good and wrong not to will it, or to will it only partially. This idea is the correlative of the idea of moral obligation and the development of the former necessitates the development of the latter.

(5.) Disobedience &c., also implies the development of the correlative of the ideas of right and wrong, namely: The idea of praise or blame-worthiness, or of virtue and vice, or in other words of guilt and innocence. This idea, that is, the idea of moral character is the correlative of that of right and wrong in such a sense that the idea of right and wrong necessitates and implies the idea of moral character or of praise and blame-worthiness. When these conditions are fulfilled and not till then does the spirit of self-seeking or the choice of our own gratification as an end become sin or constitute a breach of moral law. It will follow that no beings are subjects of moral government and capable of disobedience to moral law but such as are moral agents, that is, such as possess both the powers of moral agency and have these powers in such a state of development and integrity as to render obedience possible. It will follow that neither brute animals nor idiots, nor lunatics, nor somnambulists, nor indeed any being who is not rational and free, can disobey the moral law.

2. We come now to the second branch of the inquiry, namely: What is implied in selfishness, what are its attributes, and what states of the sensibility, and what outward developments are implied in selfishness? This, it will be seen, brings us to the immensely interesting and important task of contrasting selfishness with benevolence. But a little time since we considered the attributes of benevolence, and also what states of the sensibility and of the intellect. and also what outward actions were implied in it, as necessarily resulting from it. We are now to take the same course with selfishness, and,

(1.) Voluntariness is an attribute of selfishness.

Selfishness has often been confounded with mere desire. But these things are by no means identical. Desire is constitutional. It is a phenomenon of the sensibility. It is a purely involuntary state of mind, and can in itself produce no action, and can in itself have no moral character. Selfishness is a phenomenon of the will, and consists in committing the will to the gratification of the desires. The desire itself is not selfishness, but submitting the will to be governed by the desires is selfishness. It should be understood that no kind of mere desire, and no strength of mere desire constitutes selfishness. Selfishness commences when the will yields to the desire and seeks to obey it in opposition to the law of the intelligence. It matters not what kind of desire it is; if it is the desire that governs the will, this is selfishness. It must be the will in a state of committal to the gratification of desire.

(2.) Liberty is another attribute of selfishness.

That is, the choice of self-gratification is not necessitated by desire. But the will is always free to choose in opposition to desire. This every moral agent is as conscious of as of his own existence. The desire is not free, but the choice to gratify it is and must be free. There is a sense, as I shall have occasion to show, in which slavery is an attribute of selfishness, but not in the sense that the will chooses to gratify desire by a law of necessity. Liberty, in the sense of ability to make an opposite choice, must ever remain an attribute of selfishness, while selfishness continues to be a sin, or while it continues to sustain any relation to moral law.

3. Intelligence is another attribute of selfishness.

By this it is not intended that intelligence is an attribute or phenomenon of will, nor that the choice of self-gratification is in accordance with the demands of the intelligence. But it is intended that the choice is made with the knowledge of the moral character that will be involved in it. The mind knows its obligation to make an opposite choice. It is not a mistake. It is not a choice made in ignorance of moral obligation to choose the highest good of being as an end in opposition to self-gratification. It is an intelligent choice in the sense that it is a known resistance of the demands of the intelligence. It is a known rejection of its claims. It is a known setting up self-gratification, and preferring it to all higher interests.

4. Unreasonableness is another attribute of selfishness.

By this it is intended that the selfish choice is in direct opposition to the demands of the reason. The reason was given to rule. It imposes law and moral obligation. Obedience to moral law as it is revealed in the reason, is virtue. Obedience to the sensibility in opposition to the reason is sin. Selfishness consists in this. It is a dethroning of reason from the seat of government, and an enthroning of blind desire in opposition to it. Selfishness is always and necessarily unreasonable. It is a denial of that Divine attribute that allies man to God, makes him capable of virtue, and is a sinking him to the level of a brute. It is a denial of his manhood, of his rational nature. It is a contempt of the voice of God within him, and a deliberate trampling down the sovereignty of his own intelligence. Shame on selfishness! It dethrones human reason and would dethrone the Divine, and place mere blind lust upon the throne of the universe.

5. Interestedness is another attribute of selfishness.

By interestedness is meant self-interestedness. It is not the disinterested choice of good, that is, it is not the choice of the good of being in general as an end, but it is the choice of self-good, of good to self. Its relation to self is the condition of the choice of it. But for its being the good of self it would not be chosen. The fundamental reason, or that which should induce choice, to wit, the intrinsic value of good, is rejected as insufficient, and the secondary reason, namely, its relation to self, is the condition of determining the will. This is really making self-good the Supreme end. In other words it is making self-gratification the end. Nothing is practically regarded as worthy of choice except as it sustains to self the relation of a means of self-gratification.

This attribute of selfishness secures a corresponding state of the sensibility. The sensibility under the indulgence, attains to a monstrous development, sometimes generally, but more frequently in some particular directions. Selfishness is the committal of the will to the indulgence of the propensities. But from this it by no means follows that all of the propensities will be indiscriminately indulged and thereby greatly developed. Sometimes one propensity and sometimes another has the greatest natural strength, and thereby gains the ascendency in the control of the will. Sometimes circumstances tend more strongly to the development of one appetite or passion than another. Whatever propensity is most indulged will gain the greatest development. The propensities can not all be indulged at once, for they are often opposed to each other. But they may all be indulged and developed in their turn. For example: The licentious propensities, the propensities to various indulgences can not be indulged consistently with the simultaneous indulgence of the avaricious propensities, the desire of reputation and of ultimate happiness. Each of these, and of all the propensities may come in for a share, and in some instances may gain so equal a share of indulgence as upon the whole to be about equally developed. But in general, either from constitutional temperament, or from circumstances, some one or more of the propensities will gain so uniform a control of the will as to occasion its monstrous development. It may be the love of reputation; and then there will be at least a public decent exterior, more or less strict according to the state of morals in the society in which the individual dwells. If it be amativeness that gains the ascendency over the other propensities, licentiousness will be the result. If it be alimentiveness, then gluttony and epicurianism will be the result. The result of selfishness must be to develop in general, or in particular, the propensities of the sensibility, and to beget a corresponding exterior.

If avarice take the control of the will, we have the haggard and ragged miser. All the other propensities wither under the reign of this detestable one.

Where the love of knowledge prevails, we have the scholar, the philosopher, the man of learning. This is one of the most decent and respectable forms of selfishness, but is nevertheless as absolutely selfishness as any other form.

When compassion, as a feeling, prevails, we have as a result the philanthropist and often the reformer; not the reformer in a virtuous sense, but the selfish reformer. Where love of kindred prevails, we often have the kind husband, the affectionate father, mother, brother, sister, and so on. These are the amiable sinners, especially among their own kindred. When the love of country prevails, we have the patriot, the statesman, and the soldier. This picture might be drawn at full length, but with these traits I must leave you to fill up the outline. I would only add that several of these forms of selfishness so nearly resemble certain forms of virtue as often to be confounded with them and mistaken for them.

6. Partiality is another attribute of selfishness. Partiality consists in giving the preference to certain interests on account of their being either directly the interests of self, or so connected with self-interest as to be preferred on that account. It matters not whether the interest to which the preference is given be of greater or of less value, if so be it is preferred not for the reason of its greater value, but because of its relation to self. In some instances the practical preference may justly be given to a less interest on account of its sustaining such a relation to us that we can secure it, when the greater interest could not be secured by us. If the reason of the preference in such case be not that it is self-interest but an interest that can be secured while the greater can not, the preference is a just one, and not partiality. My family, for example, sustain such relations to me that I can more readily and surely secure their interests than I can those of my neighbor or of a stranger. For this reason I am under obligation to give the practical preference to the interests of my own family, not because they are my own, or because their interests sustain such a relation to my own, but because I can more readily secure their interests, although they may be of no greater, or even of less intrinsic value than the interests of many other families.

The question here turns upon the amount I am able to secure, and not on their intrinsic value merely. It is a general truth that we can secure more readily and certainly the interests of those to whom we sustain certain relations, and therefore, God and reason point out these interests as particular objects of our attention and effort. This is not partiality but impartiality. It is treating interests as they should be treated.

But selfishness is always partial. If it gives any interest whatever the preference, it is because of its relation to self. It always, and continuing to be selfishness, necessarily lays the greatest stress upon, and gives the preference to those interests the promotion of which will gratify self.

Here care should be taken to avoid delusion. Oftentimes selfishness appears to be very disinterested and very impartial. For example: Here is a man whose compassion, as a mere feeling or state of the sensibility, is greatly developed. He meets a beggar, an object that strongly excites his ruling passion. He empties his pockets, and even takes off his coat and gives it to him, and in his paroxysm he will divide his all with him or even give him all. Now this would generally pass for most undoubted virtue, as a rare and impressive instance of moral goodness. But there is no virtue, no benevolence in it. It is the mere yielding of the will to the control of feeling and has nothing in it of the nature of virtue. Innumerable examples of this might be adduced as illustrations of this truth. It is only an instance and an illustration of selfishness. It is the will seeking to gratify the feeling of compassion.

We constitutionally desire not only our own happiness but also that of men in general, when their happiness in no way conflicts with our own. Hence selfish men will often manifest a deep interest in the welfare of those whose welfare will not interfere with their own. Now, should the will be yielded up to the gratification of this desire, this would often be regarded as virtue. For example: A few years since much interest and feeling was excited in this country by the cause and sufferings of the Greeks in their struggle for liberty, and since in the cause of the Polanders. A spirit of enthusiasm appeared, and many were ready to give and do almost any thing for the cause of liberty. They gave up their will to the gratification of this excited state of feeling. This, they may have supposed, was virtue; but it was not, nor was there a semblance of virtue about it, when it is once understood that virtue consists in yielding the will to the law of the intelligence, and not to the impulse of excited feelings.

Some writers have fallen into the strange mistake of making virtue to consist in seeking the gratification of certain desires, because, as they say, these desires are virtuous. They make some of the desires selfish and some benevolent. To yield the will to the control of the selfish propensities is sin. To yield the will to the control of the benevolent desires, such as the desire of my neighbor's happiness and of the public happiness, is virtue, because these are good desires while the selfish desires are evil. Now this is and has been a very common view of virtue and vice. But it is fundamentally erroneous. None of the constitutional desires are good or evil in themselves. They are all alike involuntary and all alike terminate on their correlated objects. To yield the will to the control of any one of them, no matter which, is sin. It is following a blind feeling, desire or impulse of the sensibility instead of yielding to the demands of the intelligence; To will the good of my neighbor or of my country and of God because of the intrinsic value of those interests, that is to will them as an end and in obedience to the law of the reason, is virtue; but to will them to gratify a constitutional but blind desire is selfishness and sin. The desires to be sure terminate on their respective objects, but the will in this case seeks the objects, not for their own sake, but because they are desired, that is to gratify the desires. This is choosing them, not as an end, but as a means of self-gratification. This is making self-gratification the end after all. This must be a universal truth when a thing is chosen in obedience to desire. The benevolence of these writers is sheer selfishness, and their virtue is vice.

The choice of any thing whatever because it is desired, is selfishness and sin. It matters not what it is. The very statement that I choose a thing because I desire it, is only another form of saying that I choose it for my own sake, or for the sake of appeasing the desire, and not on account of its own intrinsic value. All such choice is always and necessarily partial. It is giving one interest the preference over another not because of its perceived intrinsic and superior value, but because it is an object of desire. If I yield to desire in any case it must be to gratify the desire. This is, and in the case supposed, must be the end for which the choice is made. To deny this is to deny that the will seeks the object because it is desired. Partiality consists in giving one thing the preference of another for no good reason. That is, not because the intelligence demands this preference, but because the sensibility demands it. Partiality is therefore always and necessarily an attribute of selfishness.

7. Impenitence is another modification of selfishness. Perhaps it is more proper to say that impenitence is only another name for selfishness. Penitence or repentance is the turning of the heart from selfishness to benevolence. Impenitence is the heart's cleaving to the commission of sin, or more properly cleaving to that, the willing and doing of which is sin.

8. Unbelief is another modification or attribute of selfishness. Unbelief is not a mere negation or the mere absence of faith. Faith is the reposing of confidence in God. Unbelief is the withholding of confidence in Him. Faith is a committal or yielding up of the will to be moulded and influenced by truth. Unbelief is trusting in self and refusing to trust our souls and our interests in God's hands and to commit them to his disposal. It is saying, I will take care of my own interests and let God take care of His. "Who is God that I should serve Him, and what profit should I have should I pray unto Him?" It is a refusal to commit ourselves to the guidance of God and trusting to our own guidance. It is self-trust, self-dependence; and what is this but selfishness and self-seeking? Christ says to the Jews, "How can ye believe which seek honor one of another, and seek not the honor that cometh from God only?" This assumes that unbelief is a modification of selfishness; that their regard to their reputation with men, rendered faith, while that self-seeking spirit was indulged, impossible. They withheld confidence in Christ because it would cost them their reputation with men to believe. So every sinner who ever heard the gospel and has not embraced it, withholds confidence in Christ because it will cost self too much to yield this confidence. This is true in every case of unbelief. Confidence is withheld because to yield it involves and implies the denying of ourselves all ungodliness and every worldly lust. Christ requires the abandonment of every form and degree of selfishness. To believe is to receive with the heart Christ's instruction, and requirements. To trust in them--to commit our whole being to be moulded by them. Now who does not see that unbelief is only a selfish withholding of this confidence, this committal? The fact is that faith implies and consists in the yielding up of selfishness; and unbelief is only selfishness contemplated in its relations to Christ and His gospel.


 Return to 1846 SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY Index page