Dialogue 1

AFTER a sultry day, there is something peculiarly grateful and pleasing, said I to my friend, in the cool temperature of the evening air.

Let us, then, take a turn, said he, for this I think is such an evening, and after such a day as you describe.

We went out, walking gently on until we reached an agreeable eminence, from whence we contemplated, for some time, the beautiful serenity and clearness of the sky; the softness and stillness of the trees; and the pleasing silence which reigned around us, the sun sensibly descending below the horizon on the one hand; and the enlarged moon ascending on the other. Then, moving downwards into a fine vale, we entered under a long row of very lofty trees, whose tops, joining over a neat walk, cast a thick shade within: along the side flowed slowly on, a deep and limpid stream reflecting the moon, which shot sideways through the trees.  We soon found ourselves impressed with that pleasing gloom and sober thoughtfulness which such scenes do naturally inspire as night approaches.

I do not wonder, said my friend, at what we hear of the dread and terror with which guilty souls are said so frequently stricken, when alone in the dead of night:  for how sensibly are we affected by the mild solemnity of this evening scene!  How naturally do our minds turn inward upon themselves, pensive and reflecting!

Darkness and silence exclude the exercise of our two most active and diverting senses, sight and hearing.  Those pleasing and amusing faculties, being thus rendered inactive, and their power of diverting our thoughts being thus taken away; conscience will make her attacks with superior advantage, and will be found too hard for impudence to silence, or artifice to keep under.  She will shake the weak fabric of a guilty mind to its very foundations.  At such times, happy are they who can rejoice in a good conscience; for that alone can give our minds due steadiness and constancy.

All this may be true, said I.  But if, as Mr. Locke advances, conscience be no innate principle, but only “our own opinion or judgment of the moral rectitude or pravity of our own actions;” and that opinion be formed in us by the “education, company and customs of our country;” and if “some men can prosecute what others avoid with the same bent of conscience,” even to the committing of the most enormous crimes, “without any remorse at all;” then those terrors which you ascribe to a guilty, and that steadiness which you give to a good conscience, cannot be understood to prove any thing to be really good, or evil, in the nature of the things for which conscience may thus approve or condemn a man; conscience being nothing more than what every man for himself fancies it to be; no innate, steady, or general, principle in human nature.

True, said he ironically. And so a man may be a confirmed villain with a clear and good conscience; and a very honest fellow with a very bad one.

What strange errors do the greatest men sometimes run into!

Even the errors of such men, replied I, are respectable, at least so far as to deserve the pains of a serious refutation, on account of their great credit and other extraordinary qualities.  I have often heard you disapprove of his arguments against innate principles, and of his notions concerning morals in general: and I have on that account very lately read those parts of his essay, which treat of them in particular, and other relative parts: and although I do not find myself convinced by him, yet am I not able, easily, to point out the fallacy of his reasoning on those important subjects.  I will now, therefore, beg the favour of you to show me wherein you differ from him, if it will not be disagreeable to you.

Not at all, replied he, unless the great ingenuity and acuteness of our author should happen to make it so.

Do you, then, interrogated I, maintain the reality of innate principles?  I do, answered he in a firm tone; and I hope, for the sake of sound morals and of truth, important objects with you, to convince you of that reality.

I bowed.

After a long pause, he went on thus:

When I take a general view of the arguments adduced by Mr. Locke against innate moral principles; and when I see what he produces as the most indisputable innate principles, “if any be so,” I am inclined to think there must have been some very great mistake as to the true nature of the things in question:  for he lays down certain propositions (no matter whether moral or scientific, so they be but true), and then proves that such propositions, considered merely as propositions formed by our rational faculty, after due consideration of things, as all true propositions must be, are not innate.  Nothing more obvious!  But surely those whom he opposes must, or ought to have meant, (though I cannot say I have read their arguments, nor do I mean to answer for anyone but myself) not that the propositions themselves were innate, but that the conscious internal sentiments on which such moral propositions are founded were innate.

He looked on me, interrogatively.

I said it might be so, and that I saw a great difference in those things.

Or perhaps, continued he, the mistake may have arisen from following too closely the mode, in which it is necessary to proceed, in order to acquire a knowledge of certain sciences, as in geometry:  that is, by laying down some clear and self-evident axioms or rational propositions.  But even here it should be remembered that, in the natures of things, there were principles which had existence anterior to the formation of these axioms or propositions, and on which they are founded, and on which they depend for their existence:  as, extension and solidity.

I gave an assenting inclination of the head.

I cannot, therefore, conceive, added he, that what we ought to understand by innate moral principles, can by any means, when fairly explained, be imagined to bear any similitude to such propositions as Mr. Locke advances as bidding fairest to be innate, nor to any other propositions. That is, I cannot conceive that our innate moral principles, our natural sentiments, or internal conscious feelings, (name them how you please) which we derive, and which result, from our very nature as creatures morally relative, are at all like unto any propositions whatever.
Who can discover any similitude to any conscious sentiment of the soul in these strangely irrelative propositions:

“Whatever is, is.”

“It is impossible for the same thing to be, and not to be?”


The innate principles of the soul, continued he, cannot, any more than those of the body, be propositions.  They must be in us antecedently to all our reasonings about them, or they could never be in us at all:  for we cannot, by reasoning, create any thing, the principles of which did not exist antecedently. We can, indeed, describe our innate sentiments and perceptions to each other; we can reason, and we can make propositions about them; but our reasonings neither are, nor can create in us, moral principles.  They exist prior to, and independently of, all reasoning, and all propositions about them.

When we are told that benevolence is pleasing; that malevolence is painful; we are not convinced of these truths by reasoning, nor by forming them into propositions: but by an appeal to the innate internal affections of our souls: and if on such an appeal, we could not feel within the sentiment of benevolence, and the peculiar pleasure attending it; and that of malevolence and its concomitant pain, not all the reasoning in the world could ever make us sensible of them, or enable us to understand their nature.

I do not see that it could, said I.

Every being in the universe, continued he, must receive its principles from the Divine Creator of all things.  The reason of man can create no principles in the natures of things.  It will, by proper application, enable him to know many things concerning them which, without reasoning, he never could have known; and to explain his knowledge, so acquired, to other men; but the principles of all created beings are engendered with, and accompany, the existence which they receive from their Creator.  And in a point so truly essential as that of morality is to the nature of such a creature as man; God has not left him without innate and ever-inherent principles.  He has not left to the imbecility of human reason to create what he knew it never could create, and what we know it never can create.

Even in the abstracted sciences of arithmetic and geometry, reason can create no principles in the natures of the things treated of.  It can lay down axioms and draw up propositions concerning numbers, extension, and solidity; but numbers, extension, and solidity existed prior to any reasoning about them.

And here I must observe that the assent or dissent that we give to propositions in these sciences, which are but little interesting to our nature, is drawn from a source widely different from that which we give to moral propositions.  Thus, when we are told that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, and see the demonstration; we say simply, true.  That they are equal to three right angles; false.  These things being irrelative to morals, they move no conscious sentiment, and do therefore only receive our bare assent or dissent as a mere object of sense; in the same manner as when we say a thing is, or is not, black or white, or round or square; we use our eyes, and are satisfied.
But the truth or falsehood of moral propositions must be judged of by another measure; through a more interesting medium:  we must apply to our internal sense; our divine monitor and guide within; through which the just and unjust, the right and wrong, the moral beauty and deformity of human minds, and of human actions, can only be perceived.  And this internal sense must most undoubtedly be innate, as we have already shown; it could not otherwise have existence in us; we not being able, by reasoning, or by any other means, to give ourselves any new sense, or to create, in our nature, any principle at all.  I therefore think Mr. Locke, in speaking of innate moral principles, ought, at least, to have made a difference between propositions relative to morals, and those which have no such relation.

He paused.

It seems so, said I; and seeing him ready to say more, I begged he would proceed.

He continued thus:

If we, in this matter, pay any regard to the analogy of nature, can we rationally allow innate principles, or inherent natural laws, to all the beings we have any knowledge of, and deny them to man alone?  Were we to consider his soul and body as distinct natures, and not as too intimately united, perhaps, to be easily separated, could we allow innate principles to the body and none to the soul but what it must create for itself?

It must be absurd.

It must be absurd to suppose that man, who is utterly incapable of thoroughly understanding the true natures of those principles, by which every other being exists and is actuated, should be left to contrive and create principles for the conduct of the most refined part of the creation that we are acquainted with; for the human soul.  Assuredly, as all created beings are endued with certain natural principles, necessarily innate, and ever-inherent in them; and which make their several different natures to be what they are; so man, or the soul of man, cannot, as a created being, exist without innate and ever-inherent principles.

Seeing he expected a reply:

I must confess, said I, that I do not find myself very able to dispute the truth of your doctrine with you.  You will, therefore, excuse me if I call in Mr. Locke to my aid.

As you please, said he, smiling.

Mr. Locke then, you know, returned I, has used several ways to prove that we have no innate principles:  and though I clearly see that your arguments do make generally against them all; yet I shall be better satisfied if you will permit me to particularize some of them, if it be only to hear, from you, a refutation of them.

He bowed.

You know, continued I, Mr. Locke advances that principles cannot be innate unless their ideas be also innate. “For, says he, if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without those principles; and then they will not be innate, but be derived from some other original.  For where the ideas themselves are not, there can be no knowledge, no  assent, no mental or verbal propositions about them.”

Now is there nothing in what he advances in this place that will affect your doctrine of innate principles?

I think not, answered he.

For granting that we have no innate ideas,  it is by no means from thence follow, as he says, then we have no innate principles. Ideas, simply considered, are very different things from innate moral principles, or from any other principles, which constitute the nature of things.  If I have not already shown, I will, by and by, endeavor more clearly to show that the propositions we compose according to our idea of things are nothing but propositions; they are not really the principles of the things treated of:  the principles of the things treated of are naturally inherent and exist perpetually in them whether our ideas or propositions concerning them be true or false.

But in the part quoted there is a fallacy.  He says, “if the ideas be not unique, there was a time when the mind was without those principles.”  The conclusion, you see, is vague and delusive.  The only just conclusion he could have drawn was, that if the ideas be not innate, there was a time when the mind was without those ideas, out of which the propositions are formed, which I call principles.  I doubt not that you perceive they are very improperly so called in the present question.  For Mr. Locke thus confounds the principles of our nature, and the ideas contained in the propositions he names, together, as if they were the same things: but they cannot be so, because the one receives existence from the prior existence of the other.  That is, our moral ideas receive their existence from the prior existence of our innate moral sentiments or principles: as our ideas of light and figure are derived from the prior existence of sight.

In this question the matter, as too frequently happens, has been puzzled and obscured by the misuse of words.  Axioms, and allowed propositions, are called principles.   But they are only principles formed by the human mind, in aid of its own weakness; which, in reasoning, can proceed but a little way without proved or granted propositions to rest on.  They might, perhaps, with much more propriety, be called helps, assistances, or supports to the imbecility of the human mind,  than principles of things.  The principles which naturally inhere in every species of created beings are of a nature entirely different.

It seems, then, said I, that you agree with Mr. Locke that neither ideas or propositions can be innate: but you differ from him by denying any propositions what so ever to be properly the principles of any species of beings; and by affirming that both speculative and practical propositions are mere creatures of human invention; which whether they be true or false, that is, founded in the nature of things or not, the true natures and principles of things remain unalterably the same.

That is my meaning, replied he, and that, therefore, most of the arguments advanced by Mr. Locke against innate principles are nothing, or but very little, to the purpose; because they only tend to combat things as innate principles which are nothing like innate principles; and, if it be not too bold a thing to say of so penetrating a genius, he seems only to have been fighting with a phantom of his own creating.

Indeed, highly as I think of his genius and integrity, I should have much doubted of his sincerity in this doctrine if we had not frequently seen men of the first rate abilities suffer themselves to be carried into great absurdities by their fondness for a favorite system, or, by too hasty a desire of forming a perfect one.

It is certain, however, that nothing can be more excellent than his work as far as it regards our manner of acquiring ideas by sensation and reflection.  But what should move him to advance that we have no other way of acquiring ideas; why he should exclude our moral sense and deny even its existence with the pains of so much acute false reasoning, I shall not, at present, endeavor to explain.  But having so determined, he found it necessary to remove all notions of innate moral principles (and with them, all other innate principles) out of the way, in the beginning of his book:  for had they been granted, another source of ideas must have been admitted besides those of sensation and reflection as explained by Mr. Locke.  And I shall not hesitate to affirm that a clear and indisputable explication of this mode of acquiring ideas would have cost him much more pains in trouble than all the rest of his most ingenious work.  For human actions and opinions, in the ordinary course of things, pass away in so rapid a succession as to leave no lasting traces behind them; nothing fixed to which we may refer for a renewal or a correction of our moral ideas concerning them, if our memory prove deficient.  And, unless they be recorded with extraordinary accuracy, they can seldom be contemplated a second time in precisely the same light in which they were viewed at the first.

But all those ideas which arise in our minds by the impressions which external things make upon our senses being derived from objects of fixed and lasting natures, when our memory fails us, when we doubt the clearness or precision of our ideas, we can, generally, refer with ease to the objects themselves, and can renew, or rectify, our ideas at pleasure.  This renders geometry so certain and indisputable as science: for the least variation or incorrectness in our ideas may be discovered and corrected by recurring to the figures themselves, which, through the medium of sight, convey invariably the same ideas to the mind.  Nor is there any impediment, anything naturally interesting to our affections, in the nature of the things themselves, that should make us see them falsely or apply them irrationally.

But it is not so in moral science; it more closely concerns and is more deeply interesting to us in every point of view: it therefore throws more impediments in our way to a right understanding and clear comprehension of its truths.  Our early-imbibed prejudices, misplaced affections, ill-governed passions, and jarring interests, distort and falsify our ideas in moral subjects extremely, nor can a just and natural representation of our moral sentiments or feelings take place in our minds until those delusive and turbulent enemies to moral truth be subdued or properly corrected.  And also to men whose affections and passions are duly tempered, and minds naturally adjusted, moral truths may be as clear as mathematical ones, yet, from the unhappy circumstances above-mentioned, they are generally much more clouded and obscured; and are, therefore, perpetually subjected to tedious and unpleasant disputations: a very untoward and disgusting circumstance without a doubt.
But which you think, replied I, not enough so to have caused Mr. Locke to deny the existence of innate moral principles; things so essentially interesting to the calls of virtue: and which, you consider as a source of ideas, not comprehended in what he understands by sensation and reflection.

And are you not of the same mind, interrogated he, in a lively tone?

At present I am, answered I, but yet I must bid with Mr. Locke to be more clearly informed concerning the nature of those innate principles; for, says he, “nobody has yet ventured to give a catalogue of them.”

By the demand of a catalog of them, said my friend, he seems only to expect a string of moral maxims or propositions:   but these, we have agreed, with him, are not innate principles:  we have agreed that they are not properly principles of things at all.  But, before we attempt to explain farther what we mean by innate moral principles, it may not be improper to endeavor to define what we would be understood to signify by the word principle, so far, at least, as it regards our present inquiry:  and so, perhaps, when we come to speak of any innate principle, after describing it as well as we can, we may be allowed to say what Mr. Locke says of the faculty of perception, which I presume is innate, viz. “who ever reflects on what passes in his own mind cannot miss it; and if he does not reflect, all the words in the world cannot make him have any notion of it.”  So, our moral principles be innate, and of a simple nature, when we would describe the sensations or sentiments they produce in us;  if by turning men’s minds inward upon their own feelings we cannot make them perceive what they are, words in any other view will be vain and useless.  Yet in essentials all men must be sensible of them, and capable of perceiving them, clearly enough, in plain, practical cases, for all the good purposes of human life: except, indeed, such persons as Mr. Locke very strangely, not to say preposterously, selects as the most likely to preserve a pure and perfect sense of them: viz.  idiots, infants, and madmen.

He was going to proceed in the definition of his meaning by the word principle when finding we were just at home, he declined it to another opportunity; to which I assented, on a promise that it should be early next morning. And thus ended our first dialogue.

Dialogue Two