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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

IV. Enlightenment

23. Mechanical and Moral Governments, 1788

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1In 1751 Thomas Reid (1710-1796) became Professor of Philosophy at King’s College, Aberdeen and in 1764 he was appointed to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in Glasgow. He belonged to the Scottish “common sense” school of philosophy. In his Inquiry Into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense (1764) he contended that our perception of the external world is intuitive and that the objects of perception are real and not images. Reid also wrote on a variety of other philosophical topics including ethics and aesthetics.

2Thomas Reid, Essays on the Active Powers of Man, Edinburgh: 1788, p. 302-305.

Essay IV, “On the Liberty of Moral Agents, Chapter 5, Liberty Consistent with Government”

When it is said that liberty would make us absolutely ungovernable by God or man; to understand the strength of this conclusion, it is necessary to know distinctly what is meant by government. There are two kinds of government, very different in their nature. The one we may, for distinction’s sake, call mechanical government, the other moral. The first is the government of beings which have no active power, but are merely passive and acted upon; the second, of intelligent and active beings.

An instance of mechanical government may be that of a master or commander of a ship at sea. Supposing her skilfully built, and furnished with every thing proper for the destined voyage, to govern her properly for this purpose requires much art and attention: And, as every art has its rules, or laws, so has this.

But by whom are those laws to be obeyed, or those rules observed? not by the ship, surely, for she is an inactive being, but by the governor. A sailor may say that she does not obey the rudder; and he has a distinct meaning when he says so, and is perfectly understood. But he means not obedience in the proper, but in a metaphorical sense: For, in the proper sense, the ship can no more obey the rudder, than she can give a command. Every motion, both of the ship and rudder, is exactly proportioned to the force impressed, and in the direction of that force. The ship never disobeys the laws of motion, even in the metaphorical sense; and they are the only laws she can be subject to.

The sailor, perhaps, curses her for not obeying the rudder; but this is not the voice of reason, but of passion, like that of the losing gamester, when he curses the dice. The ship is as innocent as the dice.

Whatever may happen during the voyage, whatever may be its issue, the ship, in the eye of reason, is neither an object of approbation nor of blame; because she does not act, but is acted upon. If the material, in any part, be faulty; Who put it to that use? If the form; Who made it? If the rules of navigation were not observed; Who transgressed them? If a storm occasioned any disaster, it was no more in the power of the ship than of the master.

Another instance to illustrate the nature of mechanical government may be, That of the man who makes and exhibits a puppet-show. The puppets, in all their diverting gesticulations, do not move, but are moved by an impulse secretly conveyed, which they cannot resist. If they do not play their parts properly, the fault is only in the maker or manager of the machinery. Too much or too little force was applied, or it was wrong directed. No reasonable man imputes either praise or blame to the puppets, but solely to their maker or their governor.

If we suppose for a moment, the puppets to be endowed with understanding and will, but without any degree of active power, this will make no change in the nature of their government: For understanding and will, without some degree of active power, can produce no effect. They might, upon this supposition, be called intelligent machines; but they would be machines still as much subject: to the laws of motion as inanimate matter, and therefore incapable of any other than mechanical government.

Let us next consider the nature of moral government. This is the government of persons who have reason and active power, and have laws prescribed to them for their conduct, by a legislator. Their obedience is obedience in the proper sense; it must therefore be their own act and deed, and consequently they must have power to obey or to disobey. To prescribe laws to them which they have not power to obey, or to require a service beyond their power, would be tyranny and injustice in the highest degree.

When the laws are equitable, and prescribed by just authority, they produce moral obligation in those that are subject: to them, and disobedience is a crime deserving punishment. But if the obedience be impossible; if the transgression be necessary; it is self-evident, that there can be no moral obligation to what is impossible, that there can be no crime in yielding to necessity, and that there can be no justice in punishing a person for what it was not in his power to avoid. There are first principles in morals, and, to every unprejudiced mind, as self-evident as the axioms of mathematics. The whole science of morals must stand or fall with them.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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