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The Moral Utility Of Aesthetic Manners
by [?]

The author of the article which appeared in the eleventh number of “The Hours,” of 1795, upon “The Danger of Aesthetic Manners,” was right to hold as doubtful a morality founded only on a feeling for the beautiful, and which has no other warrant than taste; but it is evident that a strong and pure feeling for the beautiful ought to exercise a salutary influence upon the moral life; and this is the question of which I am about to treat.

When I attribute to taste the merit of contributing to moral progress, it is not in the least my intention to pretend that the interest that good taste takes in an action suffices to make an action moral; morality could never have any other foundation than her own. Taste can be favorable to morality in the conduct, as I hope to point out in the present essay; but alone, and by its unaided influence, it could never produce anything moral.

It is absolutely the same with respect to internal liberty as with external physical liberty. I act freely in a physical sense only when, independently of all external influence, I simply obey my will. But for the possibility of thus obeying without hinderance my own will, it is probable, ultimately, that I am indebted to a principle beyond or distinct from myself immediately it is admitted that this principle would hamper my will. The same also with regard to the possibility of accomplishing such action in conformity with duty–it may be that I owe it, ultimately, to a principle distinct from my reason; that is possible, the moment the idea of this principle is recognized as a force which could have constrained my independence. Thus the same as we can say of a man, that he holds his liberty from another man, although liberty in its proper sense consists in not being forced to be regulated by another–in like manner we can also say that taste here obeys virtue, although virtue herself expressly carries this idea, that in the practice of virtue she makes use of no other foreign help. An action does not in any degree cease to be free, because he who could hamper its accomplishment should fortunately abstain from putting any obstacle in the way; it suffices to know that this agent has been moved by his own will without any consideration of another will. In the same way, an action of the moral order does not lose its right to be qualified as a moral action, because the temptations which might have turned it in another direction did not present themselves; it suffices to admit that the agent obeyed solely the decree of his reason to the exclusion of all foreign springs of action. The liberty of an external act is established as soon as it directly proceeds from the will of a person; the morality of an interior action is established from the moment that the will of the agent is at once determined to it by the laws of reason.

It may be rendered easier or more difficult to act as free men according as we meet or not in our path forces adverse to our will that must be overcome. In this sense liberty is more or less susceptible. It is greater, or at least more visible, when we enable it to prevail over the opposing forces, however energetic their opposition; but it is not suspended because our will should have met with no resistance, or that a foreign succor coming to our aid should have destroyed this resistance, without any help from ourselves.

The same with respect to morality; we might have more or less resistance to offer in order on the instant to obey our reason, according as it awakens or not in us those instincts which struggle against its precepts, and which must be put aside. In this sense morality is susceptible of more or of less. Our morality is greater, or at least more in relief, when we immediately obey reason, however powerful the instincts are which push us in a contrary direction; but it is not suspended because we have had no temptation to disobey, or that this force had been paralyzed by some other force other than our will. We are incited to an action solely because it is moral, without previously asking ourselves if it is the most agreeable. It is enough that such an action is morally good, and it would preserve this character even if there were cause to believe that we should have acted differently if the action had cost us any trouble, or had deprived us of a pleasure.