Saturday, January 21, 2012

James Wilson - Philosopher Jurist

James Wilson’s philosophy of law and nature shows an powerful intellect at work as is evident from the published lectures. While ethics, political philosophy, and law are his main focus, he has an extensive discussion of epistemology. It’s clear that he assumes the reader knows his Locke, Hume, and Reid. Here’s a sample of his complex thought:
Having thus stated the question ― what is the efficient cause of moral obligation? ― I give it this answer ― the will of God. This is the supreme law.
Such forceful exposition and clarity could leave little doubt of Wilson’s conviction. However, a few sentences later he says:
If I am asked ― why do you obey the will of God? I answer ― because it is my duty so to do. If I am asked again ― how do you know this to be your duty? I answer again ― because I am told so by my moral sense or conscience. If I am asked a third time ― how do you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty.
Oh, now it’s just a feeling! (Emphasis his.) Perhaps others feel otherwise? Wilson doesn’t go there. Wilson is confident that the “first principles of morals, into which all moral argumentation may be resolved, are discovered in a manner more analogous to the perceptions of sense than to the conclusions of reasoning.” “... right and wrong are ultimately perceived by the moral sense, yet reason assists its operations ...” He continues to explain that our fundamental knowledge of moral law is innate:
That law, which God has made for man in his present state; that law, which is communicated to us by reason and conscience, the divine monitors within us, and by the sacred oracles, the divine monitors without us. ... As promulgated by reason and the moral sense, it has been called natural; as promulgated by the holy scriptures, it has been called revealed law. ... But it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same divine source: it is the law of God. ...

Nature has implanted in man the desire of his own happiness; she has inspired him with many tender affections towards others, especially in the near relations of life; she has endowed him with intellectual and with active powers; she has furnished him with a natural impulse to exercise his powers for his own happiness, and the happiness of those, for whom he entertains such tender affections. If all this be true, the undeniable consequence is, that he has a right to exert those powers for the accomplishment of those purposes, in such a manner, and upon such objects, as his inclination and judgment shall direct; provided he does no injury to others; and provided some publick interests do not demand his labours. This right is natural liberty. Every man has a sense of this right.
If it is implanted in us does everyone just know what is right? Locke would argue that there is no universal innate knowledge as is evident from different cultures and degrees of civilization. Wilson says:
In the most uninformed savages, we find the communes notitiæ, the common notions and practical principles of virtue, though the application of them is often extremely unnatural and absurd. These same savages have in them the seeds of the logician, the man of taste, the orator, the statesman, the man of virtue, and the saint. These seeds are planted in their minds by nature, though, for want of culture and exercise, they lie unnoticed, and are hardly perceived by themselves or by others.
Seeds? Is an acorn an oak tree? Well, yes, potentially as Aristotle might say. And yes, Wilson is right that the potential is there. But does that get us far? Is it not trivial to say we have the potential to be good men? If we examine Wilson's hints, it is clear where he gets his ethical thought. Here he agrees with Addison.
"It is impossible," says the incomparable Addison, "to read a passage in Plato or Tully, and a thousand other ancient moralists, without being a greater and a better man for it. On the contrary, I could never read some modish modern authors, without being, for some time, out of humour with myself, and at every thing about me. Their business is to depreciate human nature, and consider it under its worst appearances. ...”
Wilson quotes many gems from Cicero including my favorite on universal natural law from The Republic. However, here’s one on civil society:
To civil society, indeed, without including in its description the idea of civil government, the name of state may be assigned, by way of excellence. It is in this sense that Cicero seems to use it, in the following beautiful passage. "Nothing, which is exhibited on our globe, is more acceptable to that divinity, which governs the whole universe, than those communities and assemblages of men, which, lawfully associated, ― jure sociati ― are denominated states."

How often has the end been sacrificed to the means! Government was instituted for the happiness of society how often has the happiness of society been offered as a victim to the idol of government! But this is not agreeable to the true order of things: it is not consistent with the orthodox political creed. Let government ― let even the constitution be, as they ought to be, the handmaids; let them not be, for they ought not to be, the mistresses of the state.

A state may be described ― a complete body of free persons, united together for their common benefit, to enjoy peaceably what is their own, and to do justice to others. It is an artificial person: it has an understanding and a will peculiar to itself: it has its affairs and its interests: it deliberates and resolves: it has its rules; it has its obligations; and it has its rights. It may acquire property, distinct from that of its members: it may incur debts, to be discharged out of the publick stock, not out of the private fortunes of individuals: it may be bound by contracts, and for damages arising quasi ex contractu.
He jumps from Cicero to Locke! Impressive! As much as he pays respect to an innate sense and God's "seeds" he still loves to read his Cicero and Locke.

While I haven’t read every line, it is clear that Wilson had an impressive intellect which he applied to every branch of philosophy. He applied a critical eye to Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Reid--making many excellent criticisms along the way. Quite an enjoyable read!


Jonathan Rowe said...

I just read a paper that suggested REID of all the sources you list most influenced Wilson.

Likewise his innate moral sense/conscience brings to mind what the Quakers and Christian mystics believer about finding God from within yourself. An innate "knowing" as opposed to using reason to determine the truth. I suppose, using the innate knowing/moral sense and reason together helps solve Hume's is/ought gap.

Jason Pappas said...

Yes, as I continue to read Wilson, the “ingenious Dr. Reid,” as he calls him is a main influence. Wilson is committed to the notion of a conscience in each individual, “the voice of God within us,” is the source of moral knowledge.

While I find his official position interesting, his practice shows he gets his knowledge like the rest of us here ... massive reading. He's continually quoting Cicero, Blackstone, Grotius, Puffendorf, etc. And he quotes Aristotle on looking to the best exemplar of human perfection as a source of ethical knowledge! While he denies it, his example proves culture trumps “the voice within.”

The article you posted is interesting ... I'll have to read it later.

Unknown said...


I really enjoyed reading this.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Joe.

I enjoyed reading Wilson's writing. I'm hoping to read more. Of course, I have Jon & TVD to thank for the wake-up call.