The duty of telling the truth seems to us, until we have devoted special consideration to the subject, the most simple thing in the world, both to understand and to perform; and when we find young children disregarding it we are surprised and shocked, and often imagine that it indicates something peculiar and abnormal in the moral sense of the offender. A little reflection, however, will show us how very different the state of the case really is. What do we mean by the obligation resting upon us to tell the truth? It is simply, in general terms, that it is our duty to make our statements correspond with the realities which they purport to express. This is, no doubt, our duty, as a general rule, but there are so many exceptions to this rule, and the principles on which the admissibility of the exceptions depend are so complicated and so abstruse, that it is wonderful that children learn to make the necessary distinctions as soon as they do.
Natural Guidance to the Duty of telling the Truth.
The child, when he first acquires the art of using and understanding language, is filled with wonder and pleasure to find that he can represent external objects that he observes, and also ideas passing through his mind, by means of sounds formed by his organs of speech. Such sounds, he finds, have both these powers—that is, they can represent realities or fancies. Thus, when he utters the sounds I see a bird, they may denote either a mere conception in his mind, or an outward actuality. How is he possibly to know, by any instinct, or intuition, or moral sense when it is right for him to use them as representations of a mere idea, and when it is wrong for him to use them, unless they correspond with some actual reality?
The fact that vivid images or conceptions may be awakened in his mind by the mere hearing of certain sounds made by himself or another is something strange and wonderful to him; and though he comes to his consciousness of this susceptibility by degrees, it is still, while he is acquiring it, and extending the scope and range of it, a source of continual pleasure to him. The necessity of any correspondence of these words, and of the images which they excite, with actual realities, is a necessity which arises from the relations of man to man in the social state, and he has no means whatever of knowing any thing about it except by instruction.
There is not only no ground for expecting that children should perceive any such necessity either by any kind of instinct, or intuition, or embryo moral sense, or by any reasoning process of which his incipient powers are capable; but even if he should by either of these means be inclined to entertain such an idea, his mind would soon be utterly confused in regard to it by what he observes constantly taking place around him in respect to the use of language by others whose conduct, much more than their precepts, he is accustomed to follow as his guide.