1 Timothy 6:3-5
If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ…
That men are greatly exposed to embrace the absurd doctrine that virtue exists in utility.
I. I AM TO EXPLAIN THE MEANING OF THE DOCTRINE THAT VIRTUE CONSISTS IS UTILITY. This sentiment has been maintained by those who believe, as well as by those who disbelieve Divine revelation. The turning point is utility. Intention is of no farther value than as it leads to utility: it is the means, and not the end. "The result of this part of the subject is, that those persons have been grossly mistaken, who taught that virtue was to be pursued for its own sake. Virtue is upon no other account valuable, than as it is the instrument of the most exquisite pleasure." All who suppose that virtue consists in utility, agree in maintaining that virtue has no intrinsic excellence, as an end, but only a relative excellence, as a means to promote the only ultimate end in nature, that is, happiness. Since happiness is, in their view, the supreme good, and misery the supreme evil, they conclude that the whole duty of men consists in pursuing happiness, and avoiding misery. Upon this single principle, that virtue wholly consists in its tendency to promote natural good, in distinction from natural evil, Godwin has founded a scheme of sentiments which, carried into practice, would subvert all morality, religion and government.
II. I proceed to demonstrate THE ABSURDITY OF SUPPOSING THAT "GAIN IS GODLINESS," OR THAT VIRTUE ESSENTIALLY CONSISTS IN UTILITY. This sentiment is not only false, but absurd, because it contradicts the plainest dictates of reason and conscience.
1. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that virtue may be predicated of inanimate objects. These have a natural tendency, in various ways, to promote human happiness. The mode in which a man is made subservient is by inducement and persuasion. But both are equally the affair of necessity. The man differs from the knife as the iron candlestick differs from the brass one; he has one more way of being acted upon. This additional way in man is motive, in the candlestick it is magnetism. Such is the natural and avowed consequence of the doctrine, that virtue consists in utility. It necessarily implies that mere material objects may be really virtuous; and some material objects may have more virtue than the most benevolent of the human race.
2. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that virtue may be predicated of the mere animal creation. It is no less absurd to ascribe virtue to the utility of animals than to ascribe virtue to a refreshing shower, or a fruitful field.
3. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that men may be virtuous, without any intention to do good. They certainly may be very useful, without having utility in view. Men are every day performing actions which have a tendency to promote that public good which lies beyond all their views and intentions. But the doctrine under consideration places all virtue in the tendency of an action, and not in the intention of the actor. Intention is of no farther value than as it leads to utility. This is stripping moral virtue of every moral quality, which is a gross absurdity.
4. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that men may be virtuous in acting, not only without any intention, but from a positively bad intention. If the virtue of an action consists altogether in its tendency, it may be as virtuous when it flows from a bad intention as when it flows from a good intention, or from no intention at all. The intention of an agent does not alter the tendency of his action. A man may do that from a good intention, which has a tendency to do evil; or he may do that from a bad intention, which has a tendency to do good. Some actions done from the worst intentions have been the most beneficial to mankind. Be it so, that no malevolent action has a natural or direct tendency to promote happiness; yet if virtue consists in utility the good effect of a malevolent action is just as virtuous as the good effect of a benevolent one. For the doctrine we are considering places all virtue in the tendency of an action, and not in the intention of the agent.
5. To suppose that virtue consists in utility, is to suppose that there is nothing right nor wrong in the nature of things, but that virtue and vice depend entirely upon mere accidental and mutable circumstances. There are certain relations which men bear to each other, and which they bear to our Creator, which create obligations that never can be violated without committing a moral crime.
6. To suppose that virtue consists in utility is to suppose that there is nothing in the universe intrinsically good or evil but happiness and misery.
7. To suppose that virtue consists in utility is to suppose that there is really no such thing as either virtue or vice in the world. If the actions of free agents are either good or evil, solely on account of their tendency to promote either pleasure or pain, then nothing can be predicated of them but advantage or disadvantage. Actions which promote happiness may be denominated advantageous, but not virtuous; and actions which produce misery may be denominated disadvantageous, but not vicious.
III. MEN ARE GREATLY EXPOSED TO EMBRACE IT. This the apostle plainly intimates, by exhorting Timothy to withdraw himself from those who "supposed that gain is godliness."
1. From the resemblance which this error hears to the truth, though it be diametrically opposite to it. Those who maintain that virtue consists in utility, represent it under the alluring name of universal philanthropy, which is an imposing appellation. They pretend that happiness is the supreme good, and virtue solely consists in promoting it to the highest degree. They insinuate that this philanthropy directly tends to diffuse universal happiness, and to raise human nature to a state of perfection in this life.
2. The danger will appear greater if we consider by whom this pleasing and plausible error is disseminated. It is taught by grave divines, in their moral and religious treatises and public discourses. Law and Paley have been mentioned as placing the whole of virtue in utility. Dr. Brown, in his remarks upon the Earl of Shaftesbury's characteristics, maintains that virtue consists in its tendency to promote individual happiness.
3. There is a strong propensity in human nature to believe any other scheme of moral and religious sentiments, than that which is according to godliness. Men naturally love happiness, and as naturally hate holiness.
(N. Emmons, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness;