The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland

BOOK 1, CHAPTER 2, SECTION 3

The Authority Of Conscience

We have, thus far, endeavored to show, that there is in man a faculty denominated Conscience; and that it is not merely a discriminating, but also an impulsive faculty. The next question to be considered is, what is the authority of this impulse.

The object of the present section is, to show that this is the most authoritative impulse of which we find ourselves susceptible.

The supremacy of Conscience may be illustrated in various ways.

I. It is involved in the very conception which men form of this faculty.

The various impulses of which we find ourselves susceptible, can differ only min two respects, that of strength and that of authority.

When we believe them to differ in nothing but strength, we feel ourselves perfectly at liberty to obey the strongest. Thus, if different kinds of food be set before us. all equally healthy, we feel entirely at liberty to partake of that which we prefer; that is, of that to which we are most strongly impelled. If a man is to decide between making a journey by land, or by water, he considers it a sufficient motive for choice, that the one mode of traveling is more pleasant to him than the other. But when our impulses differ in authority, we feel obliged to neglect the difference in strength of impulse, and to obey that, be it ever so tweak, which is of the higher authority. Thus, suppose our desire for any particular kind of food to be ever so strong, and we know that it would injure our health; self-love would admonish us to leave it alone Now, self-love being a more authoritative impulse than passion, we should feel an obligation to obey it. be its admonition ever so weak, and the impulse of appetite ever so vehement. If we yield to the impulse of appetite, be it ever so strong, in opposition to that of self-love, be it ever so weak, we feel a consciousness of self-degradation, and of acting unworthily of our nature; and, if we see another person acting in this manner, we cannot avoid feeling towards him a sentiment of contempt. “‘Tis not in folly not to scorn a fool.” And, in general, whenever we act in obedience to a lower, and in opposition to a higher sentiment, we feel this consciousness of degradation, which we do
not feel when the impulses differ only in degree. And, conversely, whenever we feel this consciousness of degradation, for acting in obedience to one instead of to another, we may know that we have violated that which is of the higher authority.

If, now, we reflect upon our feelings consequent upon any moral action, I think we shall find, that we always are conscious of a sentiment of self-degradation, whenever we disobey the monition of conscience, be that monition ever so weak, to gratify the impulse of appetite, or passion, or self-love, be that impulse ever so strong. Do we consider it any palliation of the guilt of murder, for the criminal to declare, that his vindictive feelings impelled him much more strongly than his conscience? whereas, if we perceived in these impulses no other difference than that of strength, we should consider this not merely an excuse, but a justification. And that the impulse of conscience is of the highest authority, is evident from the fact, that we cannot conceive of any circumstances, in which we should not feel guilty and degraded, from acting in obedience to any impulse whatever, in opposition to the impulse of conscience. And thus, we cannot conceive of any more exalted character than that of him, who, on all occasions, yields himself up implicitly to the impulses of conscience, all things else to the contrary notwithstanding. I think no higher evidence can be produced, to show that we do really consider the impulse of conscience of higher authority than any other of which we are susceptible.

II. The same truth may, I think, be rendered evident, by observing the feelings which arise within us, when we compare the actions of men with those of beings of an inferior order.

Suppose a brute to act from appetite, and injure itself by gluttony; or from passion, and injure another brute from anger: we feel nothing like moral disapprobation. We pity it, and strive to put it out of its power to act thus in future. We never feel that a brute is disgraced or degraded by such an action. But suppose a man to act thus, and we cannot avoid a feeling of disapprobation and of disgust: a conviction that the man has done violence to his nature Thus, to call a man a brute, a sensualist, a glutton, is to speak of him in the most insulting manner: it is to say in the strongest terms, that he has acted unworthily of himself, and of the nature with which his Creator has endowed him.

Again. Let a brute act from deliberate selfishness; that is, with deliberate caution seek its own happiness upon the whole, unmindful of the impulsions of present appetite, but yet wholly regardless of the happiness of any other of its species. In no case do we feel disgust at such a course of action; and in many cases, we, on the contrary, rather regard it with favor. We thus speak of the cunning of animals in taking their prey, in escaping danger, and in securing for themselves all the amount of gratification that may be in their power. We are sensible, in these cases, that the animal has acted from the highest impulses of which the Creator has made it susceptible. But let a man act thus. Let him, careful merely of his own happiness upon the whole, be careful for nothing else, and be perfectly willing to sacrifice the happiness of others, to any amount whatsoever, to promote his own, to the least amount soever. Such has been, frequently, the character of sensual and unfeeling tyrants. We are conscious, in such a case, of a sentiment of disgust and deep disapprobation. We feel that the man has not acted in obedience to the highest impulses of which he was susceptible; and poets, and satirists, and historians, unite in holding him up to the world, as an object of universal detestation and abhorrence.

Again. Let another man, disregarding the impulses of passion, and appetite, and self-love, act, under all circumstances, in obedience to the monitions of conscience, unmoved and unallured by pleasure, and unawed by power; and we instinctively feel that he has attained to the highest eminence to which our nature can aspire; and bat he has acted from the highest impulse of which his nature is susceptible. We are conscious of a conviction of his superiority, which nothing can outweigh; of a feeling of veneration, allied to the reverence which is due to the Supreme Being. And with this homage to virtue, all history is filled. The judge may condemn the innocent, but posterity will condemn the judge. The tyrant may murder the martyr, but after ages will venerate the martyr, and execrate the tyrant. And if we will look over the names of those, on whom all past time has united in conferring the tribute of praise-worthiness, we shall find them to be the names of those who, although they might differ in other respects, yet were similar in this, that they shone resplendent in the luster of unsullied virtue.

Now, as our Creator has constituted us such as we are, and as, by our very constitution, we do thus consider conscience to be the most authoritative impulse of our nature, it must be the most authoritative, unless we believe that He has deceived us, or, which is the same thing, that He has so formed us, as to give credit to a lie.

III. The supremacy of conscience may be also illustrated, by showing the necessity of this supremacy, to the accomplishment of the objects for which man was created.

When we consider any work of art, as a system composed of parts, and arranged for the accomplishment of a given object, there are three several views which we may have of it, and all of them necessary to a complete and perfect knowledge of the thing.

1. We must have a knowledge of the several parts of which it is composed. Thus, he who would understand a watch, must know the various wheels and springs which enter into the formation of the instrument. But this alone, as, for instance, if they were spread separately before him, upon a table, would give him a very imperfect conception of a watch.

2. He must,. therefore, understand how these parts are put together. This will greatly increase his knowledge; but it will still be imperfect, for he may yet be ignorant of the relations which the parts sustain to each other. A man might look at a steam-engine until he was familiarly acquainted with its whole machinery, and yet not know whether the paddles were designed to move the piston-rod, or the piston-rod to move the paddles.

3. It is necessary, therefore, that he should have a conception of the relation which the several parts sustain to each other; that is, of the effect which every part was designed to produce upon every other part. When he has arrived at this idea, and has combined it with the other ideas just mentioned, then, and not till then, is his knowledge of the instrument complete.

It is manifest, that this last notion, that of the relations which the parts sustain to each other, is, frequently, of more importance than either of the others. He who has a conception of the cause of motion in a steam-engine, and of the manner in which the ends are accomplished, has a more valuable notion of the instrument, than he who has ever so accurate a knowledge of the several parts, without a conception of the relation. Thus, in the history of astronomy, the existence of the several parts of the solar system was known for ages, without being productive of any valuable result. The progress of astronomy is to be dated from the moment, when the relation which the several parts hold to each other, was discovered by Copernicus.

Suppose, now, we desire to ascertain what is the relation which the several parts of any system are designed, by its author, to sustain to each other. 1 know of no other way, than to find out that series of relations, in obedience to which the system will accomplish the object for which it was constructed. Thus, if we desire to ascertain the relation which the parts of a watch are designed to sustain to each other, we inquire what is that series of relations, in obedience to which, it will accomplish the purpose for which it was constructed, that is, to keep time. For instance, we should conduct the inquiry by trying each several part, and ascertaining by experiment, whether, on the supposition that it was the cause of motion, the result, namely, the keeping of time, could be effected. After we had tried them all, and Shad found, that under no other relation of the parts to each other, than that which assumes the mainspring to be the source of motion, and the balance wheel to be the regulator of the motion, the result could be produced; we should conclude, with certainty, that this was the relation of the parts to each other, intended to be established by the maker of the watch.

And, again, if an instrument were designed for several purposes, and if it was found, that not only a single purpose could not be accomplished. but that no one of them could be accomplished, under any other system of relations than that which had been at first discovered, we should arrive at the highest proof of which the case was susceptible, that such was the relation intended to be established between the parts, by the inventor of the machine.

Now, man is a system composed of parts in the manner above stated. He has various powers, and faculties, and impulses; and he is manifestly designed to produce some result. As to the ultimate design for which man was created, there may be a difference of opinion. In one view, however, I presume there will be no difference. It will be allowed by all, that he was designed for the production of his own happiness. Look at his senses, his intellect, his affections. and at the external objects with which these are brought into relation; and at the effects of the legitimate action of these powers upon their appropriate objects; and no one an for a moment doubt, that this was one object for which man was created. Thus, it is as clear, that the eye was intended to be a source of pleasure, as that it was intended to be the instrument of vision. It is as clear, that the ear was intended to be a source of pleasure, as to be the organ of hearing. And thus of the other faculties.

But when we consider man as an instrument for the production of happiness, it is manifest, that we must take into the account, man as a society, as well as man as an individual. The larger part of the happiness of the individual depends upon society; so that whatever would destroy society, or, what is, in fact, the same thing, destroy the happiness of man as a society, would destroy the happiness of man as an individual. And such is the constitution under which we are placed, that no benefit or injury can be, in its nature, individual. Whoever truly promotes his own happiness, promotes the happiness of society; and whoever promotes the happiness of society, promotes his own happiness. In this view of the subject, it will then be proper to consider man as a society, as an instrument for producing the happiness of man as a society as well as man as an individual, as an instrument for producing the happiness of man as an individual.

Let us now consider man as an instrument for the production of human happiness, in the sense here explained.

If we examine the impulsive and restraining faculties of man, we shall find, that they may, generally be comprehended under three classes:

1. Passion or appetite. The object of this class of our faculties is, to impel us towards certain acts, which produce immediate pleasure. Thus, the appetite for food impels us to seek gratification by eating. The love of power impels us to seek the gratification resulting from superiority; and so of all the rest.

If we consider the nature of these faculties, we shall find, that they impel us to immediate gratification, without any respect to the consequences, either to ourselves or to others; and that they know of no limit to indulgence, until, by their own action, they paralyze the power of enjoyment. Thus, the love of food would impel us to eat, until eating ceased to be a source of pleasure. And where, from the nature of the case, no such limit exists, our passions are insatiable. Such is the case with the love of wealth, and the love of power. In these instances, there being, in the constitution of man, no limit to the power of gratification, the appetite grows by what it feeds on.

2. Interest or self-love. This faculty impels us to seek our own happiness, considered in reference to a longer or shorter period; but always beyond the present moment. Thus, if appetite impelled me to eat, self-love would prompt me to eat such food, and in such quantity, as would produce for me the greatest amount of happiness, upon the whole. If passion prompted me to revenge, self-love would prompt me to seek revenge in such a manner as would not involve me in greater distress than that which I now suffer; or, to control the passion entirely, unless I could so gratify it, as to promote my own happiness for the future, as well as for the present. In all cases, however, the promptings of self-love have respect solely to the production of our own happiness; they have nothing to do with the happiness of any other being.

3. Conscience. The office of conscience, considered in relation to these other impulsive faculties, is, to restrain our appetites within such limits, that the gratification of them will injure neither ourselves nor others; and so to govern our self-love, that we shall act, not solely in obedience to the law of our own happiness, but in obedience to that law which restricts the pursuit of happiness within such limits, as shall not interfere with the happiness of others. It is not here asserted, that conscience always admonishes us to this effect; or that, when it admonishes us, it is always successful. We may, if we please, disobey its monitions; or, from reasons hereafter to be mentioned, its monitions may have ceased. What we would speak of here, is the tendency and object of this faculty; and the result to which, if it were perfectly obeyed, it would manifestly lead. And, that such is its tendency, I think that no one, who reflects upon the operations of his own mind, can, for a moment, doubt.

Suppose, now, man to be a system, for the promotion of happiness, individual and social; and that these various impelling powers are parts of it. These powers being frequently, in their nature, contradictory; that is, being such, that one frequently impels to, and another repels from, the same action; the question is, in what relation of these powers to each other, can the happiness of man be most successfully promoted.

1. It cannot be asserted, that, when these impulsions are at variance, it is a matter of indifference to which of them we yield; that is, that a man is just as happy, and renders society just as happy, by obeying the one as the other. For, as men always obey either the one or the other, this would be to assert that all men are equally happy; and that every man promoted his own happiness just as much by one course of conduct, as by another; than which, nothing can be more directly at variance with the whole experience of all men, in all ages. It would be to assert, that the glutton, who is racked with pain, is as happy as the temperate and healthy man; and that Nero and Caligula were as great benefactors to mankind, as Howard or Wilberforce.

2. If, then, it be not indifferent to our happiness, to which of them we yield the supremacy, the question returns, Under what relation of each to the other, can the happiness of man be most successfully promoted?

1. Can the happiness of man be promoted, by subjecting his other impulses to his appetites and passions?

By referring to the nature of appetite and passion, as previously explained, it will be seen that the result to the individual, of such a course, would be sickness and death. It would be a life of unrestrained gratification of every desire, until the power of enjoyment was exhausted, without the least regard to the future; and of refusal to endure any present pain, no matter how great might be the subsequent advantage. Every one must see, that, under the present constitution, such a course of life must produce nothing but individual misery.

The result upon society would be its utter destruction. It would render every man a ferocious beast, bent upon nothing but present gratification, utterly reckless of the consequences which gratification produced upon himself, either directly, or through the instrumentality of others; and reckless of the havoc which he made of the happiness of his neighbor. Now, it is manifest, that the result of subjecting man to such a principle, would be, not only the destruction of society, but, also, in a few years, the entire destruction of the human race.

2. Can the happiness of man be best promoted by subjecting all his impulses to self-love?

It may be observed, that our knowledge of the future, and of the results of the things around us, is manifestly insufficient to secure our own happiness, even by the most sagacious self-love. When we give up the present pleasure, or suffer the present pain, we must, from necessity, be wholly ignorant whether we shall ever reap the advantage which we anticipate. The system, of which every individual forms a part, was not constructed to secure the happiness of any single individual; and he who devises his plans with sole reference to himself, must find them continually thwarted by that Omnipotent and Invisible Agency, which is overruling all things upon principles directly at variance with those which he has adopted. Inasmuch, then, as we can never certainly secure to ourselves those results which self-love anticipates, it seems necessary, that, in order to derive from our actions the happiness which they are capable of producing, they involve in themselves some element, irrespective of future result, which shall give us pleasure, let the result be what it may.

The imperfection of self-love, as a director of conduct, is nobly set forth in Cardinal Wolsey’s advice to Cromwell.

      “Mark but my fall, and that which ruin’d me.
      Cromwell, I charge thee fling away ambition.
      Love thyself last. Cherish the hearts that hate thee.
      Be just and fear not.
      Let all the ends thou aim’st at, be thy country’s,
      Thy God’s, and truth’s; then, if thou fall’st, O Cromwell!
      Thou fall’st a blessed martyr.”
      Henry VIII, Act iii, Sc. 2.

      “May he do justice,
      For truth’s sake, and his conscience; that his bones
      When he has run his course, and sleeps in blessings
      May have a tomb of orphans’ tears wept on them.
      Ibid.

      “For care and trouble set your thought,
      Ev’n when your end’s attained;
      And all your plans may come to nought,
      When every nerve is strained.”
      Burns’s Epistle to a Young Friend.

      “But, mousie! thou art not alone,
      In proving foresight may be vain.
      The best laid schemes of mice and men
      Gang oft agley,
      And leave us nought but grief and pain
      For promised Joy.”
      Burns, On turning up a Mouse’s Nest.

Besides, a man, acting from uncontrolled self-love, knows of no other object than his own happiness. He would sacrifice the happiness of others, to any amount, how great soever, to secure his own, in any amount, how small soever. Now, suppose every individual to act in obedience to this principle; it must produce universal war, and terminate in the subjection of all to the dominion of the strongest; and in sacrificing the happiness of all to that of one: that is, produce the least amount of happiness of which the system is susceptible. And, still more, since men, who have acted upon this principle, have been proverbially unhappy; the result of such a course of conduct is, to render ourselves miserable by the misery of every one else; that is, its tendency is to the entire destruction of happiness. It is manifest, then, that the highest happiness of man cannot be promoted by subjecting all his impulses to the government of self-love.

Lastly. Suppose, now, all the impulses of man to be subjected to conscience.

The tendency of this impulse so far as this subject is concerned, is, to restrain the appetites and passions of man within those limits, that shall conduce to his happiness, on the whole; and so to control the impulse of self-love, that the individual, in the pursuit of his own happiness. shall never interfere with the rightful happiness of his neighbor. Each one, under such a system, and governed by such an impulse, would enjoy all the happiness which he could create by the use of the powers which God had given him. Every one doing thus, the whole would enjoy all the happiness of which their constitution was susceptible. The happiness of man, as an individual, and as a society, would thus be, in the best conceivable manner, provided for. And thus, under the relation which we have suggested; that is, conscience being supreme, and governing both self-love and passion; and self-love, where no higher principle intervened, governing passion; man individual, and man universal, considered as an instrument for the production of happiness, would best accomplish the purpose for which he was created. This, then, is the relation between his powers, which was designed to be established by his Creator.

It can, in the same manner, be shown, that, if man, individual and universal, be considered as an instrument for the production of power, this end of his creation can be accomplished most successfully by obedience to the relation here suggested; that is, on the principle, that the authority of conscience is supreme. This is conclusively shown in Butler’s Analogy, Part I, Chapter 3. And thus, let any reasonable end be suggested, for which it may be supposed that man has been created; and it will be found, that this end can be best attained, by the subjection of every other impulse to that. of conscience; nay, that it can be attained in no other way. And hence, the argument seems conclusive, that this is the relation intended by his Creator to be established between his faculties.

      Vis consili expers, mole ruit sua.
      Vim temperatam, di quoque provehunt
      In majus; idem odere vires
      Omne nefas animo moventes.

If the preceding views be correct, it will follow:

1. If God has given man an impulse for virtue, it is as true, that he has designed him for virtue, as for any thing else; as, for instance, for seeing or for hearing.

2. If this impulse be the most authoritative in his nature it is equally manifest, that man is made for virtue more than for any thing else.

3. And hence, he who is vicious, not only acts contrary to his nature, but contrary to the highest impulse of. nature; that is, he acts as much in opposition to his nature as it is possible for us to conceive.