William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722) helped to launch “The Age of Reason.” It anticipated Kant’s Categorical Imperative, described and defended what we would now call the libertarian non-aggression principle, and provided the authors of the Declaration of Independence with their “purſuit of happineſs”.

William Wollaston’s The Religion of Nature Delineated (1722)

Wollaston was attempting to discover the “religion of nature”: that is, what rules of conduct a discerning, intelligent observer could rationally deduce from the bare facts of life, without any resort to scripture or divine revelation. What sort of religion might you come up with if you had no assistance from God or his prophets other than the light of reason, the evidence of the senses, and a steadfast regard for truth?

Wollaston concludes that what is right is equivalent to what is true, and that the first commandment of the natural law is this one: “let us by no act deny any thing to be true, which is true: that is, let us act according to reason: and that is, let us act according to the law of our nature.”

Rescuing Wollaston from Obscurity

That is to say, he was a rationalist avant la lettre. And you’ve probably never heard of him. Why’s that?

  1. His magnum opus was also his swan song. It’s his only major work, and he died soon after it was published and before it became influential.
  2. It’s old, and people these days tend to prefer to get their ideas fresh and in the modern vernacular.
  3. Wollaston was ridiculously erudite, in a 17th Century clergyman sort of way, and he expected his readers to keep up. His book contains more than 650 footnotes, chock-full of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, which he did not feel he needed to translate for us. Probably for this reason as much as any other, it’s been difficult to find this book in a modern edition.
  4. Wollaston was probably wrong about a lot, and the philosophers who followed in his footsteps tended to emphasize that more than his influence on them. Myself, I think that even when he’s wrong he’s wrong in interesting and informative ways and that it can be a worthwhile learning experience to take a closer look at where he went wrong and why. But a lot of readers prefer to read writers who aren’t wrong, and I can understand that.

A few years ago, I helped to produce a free eBook version of The Religion of Nature Delineated for the Standard Ebooks project. For that edition, I hunted down translations (and sources) for these untranslated (and obscurely sourced) footnotes. So now at least you don’t have to try to keep your eyes from glazing over staring at something like this:

You know what’s worse than untranslated passages of ancient Greek?
Untranslated passages of ancient Greek with obscure ligatures.

The Religion of Nature, Outlined

I’ll go even further here and try to summarize his arguments for you, so you can better decide whether you’d like to read through them yourself:

Chapter One: Religion Rationally Revealed

“Religion,” to Wollaston, is synonymous with ethics. The science of categorizing human acts into the categories of good, evil, or indifferent is the basis of religion. He acknowledges the many prior attempts to formulate a rational rule to govern this categorization, and that these attempts have failed, but he asserts that such a rule must exist, and, furthermore, that he has discovered it. The opening chapter of his book, probably the most interesting one, gives his rule and the reasoning behind it. It goes a little something like this:

  1. All acts that can be categorized as good or evil must be acts of an intelligent and free agent, capable of choosing or not choosing the act.
  2. Propositions are true if what they express conforms to how things actually are.
  3. A true proposition may be affirmed or denied either by words or by deeds. By deeds, he doesn’t just mean language-like gestures: sign language, pantomime, body language, and the like. “There are many acts of other kinds, such as constitute the character of a man’s conduct in life, which have in nature, and to imply some proposition, as plainly to be understood as if it was declared in words.” For example, if a company of soldiers attacks another company, they are by virtue of their attack stating the proposition that the other company is their enemies, which may be a true or false proposition. Or, if you promise to do A but instead do B, you are by the very act of doing B instead of A denying the truth of your earlier promise.

    This does not mean that only those actions that actually communicate something to someone else, or that are theoretically intelligible by someone else, are those that affirm or deny propositions. In the privacy of your home, when you reach for the salt-shaker, you are asserting the proposition: this food isn’t salty enough yet.

    Some act-statements, like speech-statements, may be conventional (for example, in some religions, putting on head covering is a sign of reverence; in others, taking off your hat means much the same thing). Other act-statements are more universal and can be said to be natural in a way that words never can be because words are always particular to some language.

    “Whoever acts as if things were so, or not so, doth by his acts declare that they are so, or not so, as plainly as he could by words, and with more reality. And if things are otherwise, his acts contradict those propositions which assert them to be as they are.”
  4. No act that contradicts a true proposition can be right.
    1. False propositions are wrong, so acts that assert them cannot be right.
    2. True propositions express the actual relationship between a subject and an attribute of that subject. An act that denies this relationship denies reality and is therefore wrong, against nature/reality.
    3. If there is an omnipotent Creator-God, then to deny what is actually true is to deny what God has deliberately called into being. This is not to say that we should be fatalistically blasé in the face of an evil act, for instance, but that in such a case we should acknowledge as being a true proposition that an evil act occurred.
    4. There are eternal truths that seem to be part of the Divine intention, like “every thing is what it is; that which is done cannot be undone,” and to deny any particular truth that fits this pattern is also to deny the eternal truth itself, which is in effect to deny God. To deny anything to be true that is in fact true, and that an omniscient God therefore knows to be true, is also to put yourself in opposition to God.
    5. To deny what is true in any instance is to embrace absurdity and to put truth and falsity, good and bad, and knowledge of any sort out of reach.
    6. To deny what is true is to transgress against reason, “the great law of our nature.”
  5. Acts of omission as well as those of commission can be assertions or denials of propositions. This requires a bit more subtlety to deal with, but, for example, you do not necessarily deny that The Religion of Nature Delineated is an interesting book by not personally being interested enough to read it, but you do deny that everyone ought to read some Shakespeare if you don’t bother to read any yourself. If you don’t read anything at all, you deny that reading is valuable, or that the value it gives is important, or some proposition of the sort. Certain truths seem to imply certain actions. If I neglect to help someone in dire need when I am the best or only person able to help, I am making an assertion about myself, that person, the straits that person is in, human nature, and so forth.
  6. To judge rightly what a thing is, all of those attributes of the thing that are capable of being denied must be taken into account. For example, if a thief rides off on another man’s horse, the thief isn’t denying that it’s a horse by doing this, but that the horse was another man’s property. The thief’s actions imply certain assertions about the horse (I can do with it what I please, it’s a horse, it’s safe to ride) but don’t imply anything about others (it’s a filly, it’s mottled brown, it was born in Kentucky).

    Truths are always consistent with one another, so you won’t ever find yourself in a situation in which you must deny one truth in order to affirm another. What if you make a promise that you are later unable to keep because of some other obligation? “It is not in man’s power to promise absolutely. He can only promise as one who may be disabled by the weight and incombency of truths not then existing.”
  7. When an act would be wrong, forbearing that act is right; when the omission of an act would be wrong, doing that act must be right.
  8. Moral good and evil are equivalent to right and wrong.
  9. Acts of omission and of commission that have the effect of denying what is true are morally evil. Their opposites are good. Acts that have no propositional content are indifferent.

    Denying any truth is evil, but some such denials are worse than others. All sins are not equal. For instance, it is worse to deprive someone of an estate than of a book, even though in both cases you are denying the truth of ownership: the estate might be worth 10,000× the book, in which case the evil is also 10,000× greater. (He tries to justify this by saying that the owner’s valuation of the property is somehow part of the truth statement that the thief is denying, which I think is probably incorrect. The thief isn’t asserting anything about the value of the property to the owner by stealing it, necessarily.) The quantity of evil/guilt involves “the importance and number of truth violated.” Good actions, that is, acts that serve as true propositions, are also good in degrees, by inverting the evil that would be the result of their omission (or, I suppose, their commission in the case of good deeds of omission, but that seems to lead into a thicket: aren’t I just about always failing to commit a near infinite number of possible sins?)

    Though some deny that there is any such thing as good and evil, indeed there is— just as there is a difference between true and false. Indeed: they resolve to the same thing. There have been many attempts to find a criterion or rule for distinguishing good things from evil ones, or some ultimate end that serves as the criteria by which good and evil acts can be distinguished, but these have all either failed, or are incomplete, or are circular tautologies, or eventually just reduce in practice to this rule I have proposed. (Here he reviews several such attempts.)
  10. The natural existence of good and evil implies natural religion. Religion is “nothing else but an obligation to do… what ought not to be omitted, and to forbear what ought not to be done.”
  11. “[E]very intelligent, active, and free being should so behave himself, as by no act to contradict truth; or, that he should treat every thing as being what it is.”

From here, Wollaston answers some possible objections to his scheme, most of which are the result of misunderstandings of what he’s getting at. He slips up, I think, when he discusses the case of whether or not it would be a wrong denial-of-truth to refuse to tell an enraged murderer where his prospective victim is hiding. Among his answers here is that “no one can tell, in strict speaking, where another is, if he is not within his view. Therefore you may truly deny that you know where the man is.” This seems to subvert his scheme by hinting that you can behave deceptively while holding on to the truth verbally and legalistically and thereby stay on the straight and narrow. In general, his answer to this objection seems to rely less on the scheme he’s introduced and more on ordinary folk ethics, which seems odd to me, since I don’t think this objection is particularly threatening to his scheme.

Wollaston also says that some truth-denying sins are worse than others. Some are so minor as to be “evanescent or almost nothing.” Furthermore, it is only those truths that have some reference to other living things that we really must respect. If we don’t treat a television as a television but instead treat it as a target at a shooting range, we don’t commit a sin against the truth (as we would if we treat it as our television when it actually belongs to someone else). To me, this seems an important qualification tacked carelessly onto Wollaston’s scheme, and weakens the original justification for it, which was that a denial of truth as such was a denial of truth as an aspect of God and therefore a denial of God, without any regard for whether that truth had some relation to other living things.

Chapter Two: Happiness

Wollaston agrees with Aristotle that happiness is best measured over the sum of a person’s life rather than in any particular time-slice. He also asserts that to make oneself happy is the duty of every intelligent being, and that we must take this truth about intelligent beings into account in our dealings with others.

Furthermore, nothing that denies truth can be productive of the true and ultimate happiness of any being; neither can the practice of truth make any being unhappy (in this life-wide sense of happiness). This bold assertion he bases on his understanding of the nature of God (which he’ll expand on later): nobody has the power to increase his happiness by setting his will above the evident will of God, and, also, it would be absurd to think that God would be so sadistic or defective as to punish people for conforming to His will. Because of this, our duty to make ourselves happy and our duty to conform in word and deed to the truth amount to the same thing, and this is our true religion.

Chapter Three: Reason and Epistemology

If we cannot actually know the difference between true and false, or at least have some good heuristics, then all of Wollaston’s project is for naught. He starts by giving an interesting and sophisticated description of how sense qualia and certain ideas and relationships are both examples of immediate mental data. These ideas/qualia as such are irrefutable data that we can use as axioms. Wollaston also asserts, less rigorously, that reason can in fact obtain new truths for us (if not, what else is it for?).

The practice of reason is another term for what is also called conformity to truth or the pursuit of true happiness, that is, the true natural religion. Each person must be his own judge of truth: “to demand another man’s assent to any thing without conveying into his mind such reasons as may produce a sense of the truth of it, is to erect a tyranny over his understanding and to demand a tribute which it is not possible for him to pay.”

There are also things we can’t determine the truth of, but there may be various ways in which we can get a probable truth, and he discusses several such heuristics, for instance, which sorts of authorities to trust. In such cases, you’re as obligated to conform to the probability as in certain cases you are obligated to conform to the truth: you put your money down on the best odds, even though you can’t know how the dice will roll ahead of time.

Chapter Four: Free Will

Is it even possible for people to conform to the truth? Wollaston acknowledges that people are not completely in control of their actions, and that you can only be morally obligated to do what you are in fact capable of doing. You are obligated to conform with truth only so far as your faculties, powers, and opportunities allow, and to the extent that the truth is discernible by you. That said, don’t act like this is an available cop-out. You must endeavor “in earnest… heartily; not stifling [your] own conscience, not dissembling, suppressing, or neglecting [your] own powers.”

Wollaston thinks that the free will problem comes up in ethical philosophy as a sort of dodge by people who are hoping for some sort of excuse for not taking ethical problems seriously. If you were told that a great reward was waiting for you in the next room if you were just to go and retrieve it, you wouldn’t waste time discoursing about whether or not you had the free will necessary to undertake such a task — you’d just get up and go. But in the realm of ethics, people for some reason feel obligated to dive into the free-will labyrinth rather than just staying on the straight and narrow path to what they know is best.

Chapter Five: God, Proven

In chapter five, Wollaston decides to prove the existence of God and describe His nature. It’s your standard first cause argument (every effect has a cause stretching back through time, but there must have been some original uncaused cause to set this all in motion) combined with the argument from design (isn’t the universe amazing and don’t we see evidence of God’s order and benevolence everywhere?).

Wollaston also shares some thoughts on the compatibility of the divine regulation of the universe and of divine omniscience with free will; whether petitioning an omniscient God with prayer makes any sense; what God might have had in mind by introducing free will into His creation; whether God might from time to time rescind our free will to set us on a particular course; why it is that God seems sometimes to reward the wicked and punish the good; and how it is that we have immaterial souls planted in us by God.

To the certain relief of his publisher, Wollaston discovers that the truths about God that any heathen could discover by diligently applying reason to those facts and relations immediately available to our minds conform remarkably well to contemporary Christian worship: we should feel gratitude to our creator, and express this in prayer; we should eschew idolatry; we should form into congregations and worship together; and so forth.

Chapter Six: The Proto-Non-Aggression Principle

In chapter six things get interesting again, as Wollaston derives and maps out what in modern anarcho-libertarian popular writing is called the “non-aggression principle.”

  1. People are distinct individuals, each with certain unique properties.
  2. Each person has by nature the possession of certain things, such as his own life, limbs, labor, and the products thereof. That is to say that basic property rights are inherent in the state of nature and don’t require government or custom to come into being.
  3. Whatever is inconsistent with the general peace & welfare of mankind is inconsistent with the laws of human nature and therefore wrong. The right laws for a society are those that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
  4. Reason respects cases, not persons, so something that would be true for person A with respect to person B would also be true for B with respect to A if the case were inverted.
  5. In a state of nature, people are equal in terms of dominion (with the exception of the natural dominion parents have over their children). Power does not confer right — if it did, it could confer the right to anything, including denial of the truth, which we’ve already proven to be wrong.
  6. “No man can have a right to begin to interrupt the happiness of another.”
  7. However, you do have the right to defend yourself, to recover what is stolen from you, or to make reprisals against those who have aggressed against you (to recover the equivalent of whatever you have lost by the injustice). To have a right to anything means also that you have the right to defend your possession of that thing.

    Alas, his first justification for this is that each of us has a natural capability and instinct for self-preservation, and that it would be absurd for us to have such a thing and not be allowed to use it. It seems to me like this same logic could be used to justify aggression.
  8. Initial property rights are established by first possession or by something being the product of one’s own labor, and last until they are voluntarily relinquished by the possessor. Stolen property, if it is never reclaimed, may eventually lose its taint as it is passed from hand to hand or generation to generation, so it is not necessary to be able to trace every possession back to a first legitimate owner.
  9. A property right may be transferred by compact or donation. Among the rights a person has by virtue of ownership is the right to dispose of property in this way, and both the giver and the receiver are acting within their rights. Trade is mutually beneficial and commerce is a social good.
  10. Therefore: property is founded in nature and truth.
  11. If you don’t dispose of your property by compact or donation, it is yours until you die. If someone else uses your property without your consent, they are in effect denying the truth of your ownership, in violation of the principles of chapter 1.
  12. If something is your property this means exactly that you have the sole right of using it and disposing of it.
  13. If you use something or dispose of it, you are simultaneously declaring the proposition that it belongs to you. (Borrowing or renting something is a special case, in which you declare that the thing is yours for the time allowed without doing violence to the truth.)
  14. Injustice means usurping or invading the property of another; justice means quietly permitting to everyone what is theirs.
  15. To not do violence to the truth you must avoid injustice. Injustice is wrong and evil.
  16. To carelessly cause suffering in others, or to delight in the suffering of others, is cruel. To be insensitive to the suffering of others is unmerciful. Mercy and humanity are the opposites of these.
  17. Those who religiously regard truth and nature will, in addition to being just, also be merciful and humane, these things being right.
  18. Let me reiterate that.
  19. Therefore: murder or injury (not in self-defense), robbery, stealing, cheating, betraying, defamation, detraction, defiling the bed of another man, and so forth, as well as tendencies to these things, are heinous crimes (tendencies include things like envy, malice, and the like).

    The value of something (for instance, when calculating compensation for injury) is determined by how the rightful owner values it, not by some objective standard and certainly not by the standard of the person who behaves unjustly with respect to it. A crime done in secret (for instance, to sleep with a man’s wife behind his back) is still an injury and a violation of the truth.

Another interesting thing in this section is that Wollaston seems to anticipate Kant’s categorical imperative, for instance when he says that a person who breaks a promise “denies and sins against truth; does what it can never be for the good of the world should become an universal practice…” (Wollaston died the same year Kant was born.)

Most of what Wollaston concluded in this chapter would be simpatico with modern anarcho-capitalists and libertarians, though many would cringe at his attempts to find a utilitarian grounding for his scheme, and the objectivists would quibble at the altruism involved in Wollaston’s mandate of mercy.

Chapter Seven: Government, Commerce, and Property

But in the following chapter, Wollaston reintroduces and justifies government, though he does this along classical liberal lines that probably wouldn’t leave all of the modern fans of the previous chapter behind:

  1. Man is a social animal. Even if there were not many advantages to living socially, as individuals we would inevitably come up against other people. Disputes are inevitable. There will be vicious and ambitious people who will strive to become more powerful and thereby more troublesome to the rest of us. It is natural, therefore, that good people will form local alliances of mutual support and defense.
  2. The purpose of society is the common welfare of those in it.
  3. People enter into society for that purpose, which implies certain rules or laws according to which they agree to be governed. This means that they must settle on certain areas of unanimous consent, certain methods for resolving disputes, a system of punishments and deterrents to discourage offenses, and on a method of protecting the alliance from outside attack.
  4. Such laws must be consistent with natural justice in order to be in harmony with truth and thereby not evil. (Like Robert Nozick, Wollaston believes that a state can naturally emerge from anarchy without violating natural rights along the way.)
  5. A society with laws implies a hierarchy, with governors and governed, judges, magistrates, and the like. This seems to rule out anarchy, though Wollaston says that “if the society has none [no executors of the law, or no laws, it’s not exactly clear what he means], it is indeed no society, or not such a one as is the subject of this proposition” so maybe he’s leaving open the possibility.
  6. A person may relinquish some of his natural rights and put himself under the control of laws and governors in order to gain the protection of being in a law-governed society. This is a form of contractual exchange, in which a person gives up something and gets something the person feels is more valuable in exchange, and so this is no violation of the truth as laid out in the previous chapter. (Indeed it would be a violation of the truth not to make such an advantageous exchange.)
  7. This exchange, says Wollaston, may either be explicit or implicit. If you take advantage of those privileges that are not your natural rights but are only available to you as a citizen of a commonwealth, you implicitly own allegiance to the laws that go along with it, even if you have not explicitly taken an oath or what have you. Merely accepting the protection of a state, or choosing to live within its borders, is an implicit acceptance of its laws.

    This does real damage to the scheme Wollaston set up in the previous chapter, in which he said that the value of something is set by the rightful possessor of it, and that only the rightful possessor has the right to use or dispose of it. This modification reminds me of the people who set up shop at road medians, who, when you’re stopped at a red light, wash your windshield without asking you if you want their service, and then act as though you owe them payment for a service you never requested.
  8. Once you become a member of a society, you need to respect not only the natural rights of the people in it (as described in the previous chapter), but any conventional or legal rights that the society establishes: for instance, their titles to property, or the privilege of the state to resolve disputes (rather than individual initiative to seek redress), or subordination to legal authority.
  9. When the law is silent, or impotent, people retain their natural rights, and should behave as described in the previous chapter. If the law is contrary to natural justice, “one of them must give way; and it is easy to discern, which ought to do it.”
  10. Societies established like the ones described in this chapter have a right to defend themselves against other societies. “War may lawfully be waged in defense and for the security of a society, its members and territories, or for reparation of injuries.” This is deliberately parallel to his formulation of an individual right in the state of nature. Nations with respect to other nations are situated like individuals with respect to other individuals in the absence of a state (at least “so far as they have not limited themselves by leagues and alliances.”) Another way of looking at this is that a nation may defend collectively the agglomerated individual rights of its citizens against the unjust aggression of an outside individual or group of individuals under the very same principles that individuals in the state of nature can defend their rights against one another.

Chapter Eight: The Family

Chapter eight concerns families and kinship: the nature of marriage, the responsibility of parents for children, the authority of parents over children — “I have designedly forborn to mention that authority of a husband over his wife, which is usually given to him, not only by private writers, but even by laws; because I think it has been carried much too high. I would have them live so far upon the level, as (according to my constant lesson) to be governed both by reason” — the debt of gratitude and other duties children owe parents, and the justification for us not treating all men as brothers but actually treating our kin better than everyone else.

Absolute maxims about individual liberty favored by some libertarian and anarchist thinkers often seem to run aground on the parent/child relationship. By what right do I as a parent interfere with my child’s liberty to run out into traffic? Well, it’s not hard to come up with some good reasons, but it can be hard to shoehorn them in alongside certain confidently-asserted principles about liberty. So it’s a sign that Wollaston takes the subject seriously that he includes this chapter.

He also tries to guard against the monarchist gambit of sneaking tyranny in through this gap by analogizing the relationship of a king to subjects to that of a parent to children. Wollaston says this won’t fly for a number of reasons.

Chapter Nine: Human Nature and the Human Soul

Wollaston reiterates our duty to devote ourselves to truth, reason, and virtue (three names for the same thing). Some of the self-facing virtues are prudence, temperance, chastity, and frugality, but Wollaston is quick to stress that these are not virtues of self-denial so much as of rational self-interest. Chastity, for instance, is not the avoidance of sex, or of the pleasure from sex, but it’s knowing how best to fit sexual pleasure into our lives in a way that is compatible with our long-term goals and with other virtues.

Virtue, says Wollaston, tends to lead to happiness; vice to unhappiness. It’s not as though “virtue can make a man happy upon a rack” or dissolve all the misfortunes we may encounter, but in any situation, the most advantageous act and the virtuous act coincide (vice can’t make you happy on a rack either).

Wollaston goes on at great length to speculate on the nature of the soul (which he describes at first in a way that we might use the term “mind” for). He rejects three monist hypotheses to resolve the mind-body problem: 1) that all matter thinks, 2) that certain configurations or motions of matter generate thought, 3) that thinking is an epiphenomenon of some sort that accompanies certain configurations of matter. Instead, he asserts that thinking is a property of some special, non-material substance that God attaches to some sort of diaphanous interface in our brains that allows it to receive impressions from the physical world and to direct our bodies.

This substance is the soul, and, it being non-material, we have no reason to expect that it expires when the body it is attached to dies. From here, Wollaston makes a number of ill-supported speculations about the nature of the soul. Worst, he reasons that there must be an afterlife because he has proven that there is a just and reasonable God, and yet on earth there is so much cruelty and injustice and disorder, that only a just and harmonious afterlife could possibly balance the scales and be compatible with God’s nature. Alas, the proof of God he relies on as one of the axioms of this argument itself proceeded from the observation that the universe was so orderly and benevolent that it must be the creation of a just and wise God. So Wollaston has to utterly contradict himself to try and prove his point.

In all, once he gets past some interesting and well-considered thoughts on the mind/body problem, the rest of this chapter in which he gives his speculations about the nature of God, the destiny of the soul, and so forth are pretty worthless: just his own opinion of how he would organize the universe were he a just, omniscient, and omnipotent creator. He even uses that most desperate gambit of saying that even if the immortality of the soul cannot be demonstrated, “yet it is certain the contrary cannot”! From which he slides into Pascal’s Wager. (His version is slightly improved by his assertion that a virtuous life that is to our advantage from the standpoint of eternity also happens to be to our advantage from the standpoint of our mortal lives.)


His concluding advice: “let our conversation in this world, so far as we are concerned, and able, be such as acknowledges every thing to be what it is (what it is in itself, and what with regard to us, to other beings, to causes, circumstances, consequences): that is, let us by no act deny any thing to be true, which is true: that is, let us act according to reason: and that is, let us act according to the law of our nature.”

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This is pretty impressive for 1722 and better in some regards than what I read from Kant. 

Thanks for writing it up.

It says no man has the right to interrupt the happiness of another and talks about property rights, but also says "Whatever is inconsistent with the general peace & welfare of mankind is inconsistent with the laws of human nature and therefore wrong".

What would Wollaston say about heroin dealers? Is it right or wrong to prevent them from dealing heroin?